BAE Systems chief executive John Weston believes aerospace will have no trouble attracting top graduates

Sliding off his shoes, he grabs a coffee and settles in to download another ream of e-mails about the company's restructuring plans mid-flight on the corporate Hawker 800. BAE Systems chief executive John Weston can be accused of neither stuffiness nor technophobia.

Back on the ground, Weston is so at ease with information technology that he turns to his PC to extract facts about the company's prowess in recruiting top-level graduates rather than rely on his memory or somebody else. "In 1997, BAe was 74th on the list of most favoured employers for graduates in the UK. In 1999, it was 23rd", he says, without looking away from his screen. Another fact pops up. "In terms of 'engineering employer of choice', BAe wasn't even on the list back in 1997. By 1999, it was first. And we were top of the list for our graduate recruitment website," he adds.

This is Weston's response to an obvious misconception that the aerospace industry is having problems attracting bright graduates who might otherwise see their glittering futures (and bank balances) guaranteed by the dynamic fin de siecle industries of new media, telecommunications and IT.

"Even with competition from the City [of London] and from the Internet- and IT-based companies, we are still doing things which are exciting, challenging and capture imaginations," Weston rallies, as he tears himself away from the computer and walks to the conference table.

Dynamic industries

With BAE Systems' engineer workforce now nearly doubled to 19,000 following its merger on 30 November with Marconi Electronic Systems, its popularity as a future employer for graduates across Europe and further afield is unlikely to evaporate.

From his point of view, providing you look internationally, there is no "crunch point" in sight when it comes to resourcing the company. But Weston admits the challenge has been overcome by widening the skills specification. "We have had to recognise other skills instead of taking on a structural engineer or an aerodynamicist and trying to retrain them to become a systems engineer," he says. With around 10% of BAE's new graduate employees coming from overseas, Weston says his company's interest in European students has been growing, largely because of the cultural and educational differences which give them a wider knowledge and experience base than their UK counterparts.

The biggest challenge, however, is to shift BAE's management culture from an Anglo-Saxon style of operating to a "global" one. As the group continues to expand internationally, Weston wants the business to operate as a global network with the expertise and management base in customer countries responsible for delivering the systems.

A "global culture" at senior management level is something which will develop over time, he admits. Meanwhile, his biggest hurdle is to change the mindset of the organisation at the operating level. "One of the big challenges is cost. The industry must take all the improvements in engineering and turn those into higher quality and bring down costs while achieving higher levels of performance," he explains.

But as the Cambridge graduate engineer singlemindedly sets new levels of performance for the company amid the ongoing restructuring following the Marconi merger, he wants BAE to be prepared to manage at least one more international merger. A transatlantic catch is high on the menu and would cement Weston's ambition to play a leading role in the two or three global aerospace and defence groups which he believes will emerge in 10-15 years and shape the sector well into the new century.

"If you really want commonality between US forces and their allies, then, for coalition warfare purposes, you need the industrial infrastructure which encourages people to put programmes together instead of encouraging people to put European programmes together to compete with the Americans", he says.

For Weston, other more pressing challenges lie ahead for the world's second largest defence contractor. "It's all about IT and how you connect vast strands of information and send information to where it is needed in a way which is failsafe", he says. "We have a lot to do to understand how to be a prime contractor of the digital battlefield. Like what is the in-house work content you need to go along with that, bearing in mind that you need about 30% of the value chain in-house if you are going to compete?" Much of the answer lies in supply chain management and picking the right industrial partnerships, he notes.

"If you are only trying to compete as a prime contractor and take a margin of everything you buy in and take all the integration risks, then you've got a problem in remaining competitive. As the market moves, that makes getting the right industrial alignments interesting. There are also issues about how you become the most efficient and effective.

"So you start thinking about your supply chains and how you get the most effective use of capital and the most effective cycle times, and you don't necessarily come up with answers which translate into horizontal and vertical strata on the contracting tree," Weston says. "I think that, in terms of the way we are going to move the industrial structure, we need a philosophy that is a bit more thoughtful about how value is generated within the industry".

Eliminating boundaries

Weston is looking inwards at how BAE's investment and technology infrastructures interact and is eliminating operational or functional boundaries. The company is stepping up resources dedicated to software engineering and reducing some of the more classical aerodynamics and manufacturing disciplines.

For a company with activities spanning military aircraft, submarines and aircraft carriers to ballistic missile defence, communications satellites and air traffic management systems, as well as regional jets and large airliners, there is a lot to consider. Weston says that, outside these project-based applications, the company can "think innovatively and differently" about how technologies and processes developed for them can be used to meet military and civil requirements.


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Source: Flight International