Aerospace Engineering Careers Still Flying High
By John R. Platt
It's a time of change for the aerospace
industry. NASA's budget has been slashed.
Military budgets could be tightening. Delta Air
Lines, US Airways and United Continental
Holdings all just posted
quarterly losses (although the first two
were offset by one-time special items on their
balance sheets), and profits at all airlines are
down. Meanwhile, international competition is on
But despite the tough economy,
despite the uncertainty, and despite the
changing environment for the industry, these may
very well be good times for aerospace engineers.
According to experts, the private side of the
industry is booming, international companies are
doing well enough to create new markets, and new
technologies and innovations are poised to
create new opportunities in niches that did not
even exist a few years ago.
This growth might not all occur
overnight. According to the U.S.
Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), aerospace
engineering positions are only expected to grow
5 percent from 2010 to 20120, one of the slowest
rates for all engineering professions and slower
than the average for all other occupations.
But only looking at that 5
percent number doesn't tell the whole story.
According to the BLS, there are nearly 80,000
engineers employed in aerospace, significantly
higher than the number employed in computer
hardware, nuclear engineering, biomedical
engineering or chemical engineering, among other
fields. Five percent growth still translates to
a lot of new jobs in the coming years.
And companies are already
hiring. "Even with the recession, hiring has
been on the rise for the past several years due
to an increased demand for air travel and space
travel," says Andrew Schrage, co-owner of
Money Crashers, a personal finance and
"The commercial side is
booming," says Paul Kostek, past president of
IEEE Aerospace & Electronics System Society
and principal of Air Direct Solutions. While he
says many companies are worried about possible
defense cuts, other markets are in growth mode:
"The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) market and
the emergence of commercial space will also
create opportunities," he says. Kostek also says
that both suppliers and airframers are doing
well in the current economic climate.
And there are plenty of jobs for
everyone at all skill levels, says Richard
Wlezien, the Vance and Arlene Coffman Endowed
Department Chair in Aerospace Engineering at
Iowa State University. "Even in the depressed
economy, the jobs are still there," he says,
pointing points out that young engineers
graduating from his school have a 100 percent
employment rate within one year. "Lockheed
Martin hires 7,000 graduating engineering
seniors a year. That's 10 percent of all
engineers graduated in a given year. There are
still not enough engineers to go around."
Although the age of
government-sponsored space exploration might,
arguably, be over, "the U.S. is still totally
dependent upon space," Wlezien says. "We can't
go about our daily life without it." Imagine
existence without satellites and you see how
important space is to the economy and just about
everything else these days.
And military budgets may be
shrinking overall, but this is already
translating into large investments in UAVs. "The
Department of Defense is making a big transition
from manned craft to UAVs, which involves a bit
investment in new technology," he says. UAVs
represent not just a new industry but a new
mind-set. "No one would have thought of it 30
years ago. The disposability of these new assets
Meanwhile, the private sector is
poised to take over areas of space travel
previously relegated to the government, with
Elon Musk's Space X, Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin
and Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic "all
growing and moving along with their projects,"
says Kostek. Some of the future projects will
combine public and the private sectors. "Boeing
has won part of a project do to NASA's next
space launch," he says.
"Commercial space flight is just
taking off," Wlezien says. "It could mean
exploding growth in space access over the next
10 to 15 years."
Then there are the related
areas, like next-generation air traffic
controls. "People don't always think about it,
but this will provide all kinds of opportunities
for people," Kostek says.
Environmental issues will also
lead to new career possibilities. "Commercial
aircraft will need to be quieter and quieter,
and we'll need to find sources of new fuels,"
And let's not forget about
plastic. Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner contains
several tons of carbon fiber reinforced plastic,
which weighs less but is stronger than the
metals that it replaces. Materials engineers
will have whole new roles in the future of
aerospace, Kostek says.
Because aerospace is such a
broad, all-encompassing field, all engineers are
valued, not just those with aerospace
engineering degrees. "The companies are looking
to all areas," Wlezien says. "A third of what
goes into a new airplane is electronics." The
industry needs mechanical engineers, software
engineers, electronic engineers, civil
engineers, and just about everyone else. "The
aerospace industry needs people with every
imaginable skill," he says.
"I tell students that they can
take an engineering degree anywhere," Kostek
says. "It's the same skill sets and the same
ability to solve problems. Civil engineers can
build airplanes. It's a structure, the same as
On the flip side, getting a
degree in aerospace engineering doesn't restrict
you to working for Boeing or Lockheed Martin.
"People choose aerospace because they're
passionate about things that fly," Wlezien says.
"But you see aerospace engineers working in all
kinds of fields." He points to the automotive
industry as one of the most obvious examples.
But the high level of need
doesn't mean that current employees can slack
off on managing their professional growth. "The
competition in the aerospace industry is high,
especially given its international component,"
says Schrage. He advises employees to keep their
knowledge and skills up-to-date.
"Self-motivation is a requirement in order to
succeed," he says.
Where the Jobs Are
According to the Bureau of Labor
Statistics, the best U.S. states for aerospace
engineering jobs are California, Texas,
Washington, Florida and Virginia. But at least
one of those states might not always be in the
top five, says Kostek, who points to the
changing funding of NASA and the military. A
2011 study by the Aerospace Industries
Association found that
Florida could lose up to 40,000 defense-related
jobs in the coming years. "The traditional
Florida jobs might not always be there," he
says. "They could be moving to California,
Texas, Alabama and other states."
Some markets are already in
flux. Dayton, Ohio, for example, is expected to
14 percent increase in its aerospace
employment in the next four years, according to
the state's Aerospace and Business Aviation
Advisory Council. That growth, however, will be
dependent upon the region attracting enough new
talent to fill that need.
The weak housing market could
remain a major concern to people in the
aerospace industry for the next few years, says
Kostek, who calls it one of the industry's
biggest challenges. People who decide to
relocate "could be moving into a market where
the houses cost more," he says. "The housing in
Seattle, for example, is much more expensive
than other regions."
San Antonio, on the other hand,
is more affordable, with a cost of living six
percent below the national average, according to
Mario Hernandez, president of the San Antonio
Economic Development Foundation. He says his
community has made aerospace a priority and they
are offering economic incentives to attract even
more jobs to the area.
Moving internationally might
even be an option for some people. "India and
China are trying to grow their avionics
markets," Kostek says. "A lot of the information
and knowledge they will need will mostly need to
come from the U.S. and Europe."
No matter where you look,
though, "Aviation and aerospace as a whole are
changing," says Wlezien, "and change brings
John R. Platt is a freelance
writer and entrepreneur, as well as a frequent
contributor to Today's Engineer,
Scientific American, Mother Nature
Network and other publications.