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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 the rise.

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 careers website.

"The commercial side is booming," says Paul Kostek, past president of the 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."

Growth Areas

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 changes everything."

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," Wlezien says.

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.

Getting In

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 anything else."

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 see a 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 opportunities."


Comments on this story may be emailed directly to Today's Engineer or submitted through our online form.


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.


Copyright 2012 IEEE

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