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The UK’s booming aerospace industry, which accounted for 55 per cent of civil aerospace sales in 2010, has been described by the government as a phenomenal success story and a sector that offers tremendous opportunities for growth.

This is an article written by Mark E Johnson and published in the RELOCATE MAGAZINE

The UK’s aerospace sector is second in size only to that of the US. Furthermore, it’s growing at a remarkable speed. But is that growth being threatened by skills shortages and lack of succession planning as older workers retire? Mark E Johnson investigates.


Forecasts suggest that the UK aerospace industry will expand at a rate of 6.8 per cent over the next few years, with plenty of opportunity for overseas investment. As with other engineering sectors, however, it faces personnel challenges.

Around 3,000 aerospace companies are currently operating in the UK. Big British names include BAE Systems, GKN and Rolls Royce. Many of the major international companies in the industry, including Airbus, Cobham, AgustaWestland, Finmeccanica, Thales, Boeing and Bombardier, maintain a presence. While the large companies make up a significant portion of the sector, the UK aerospace industry also has the strongest SME component in Europe, accounting for 55 per cent of total civil aerospace sales in 2010.

The sector employs around 230,000 people. Of those, 100,000 or so are directly employed by the industry, while a further 130,000 work in supporting roles. Research and development makes up some 21,100 of those positions, and around 3,000 apprentices are in the industry, according to ADS, the aerospace trade body. A characteristic of the industry is its multifaceted workforce, and the skillsets that make it up cut across a broad swathe of disciplines, including engineering, science, production, service, project management, training and finance.

Particular strengths of the British industry include the design and manufacture of large aircraft wings, production of engines, and building of landing gear systems. Britain is also one of a handful of countries able to design and build advanced helicopters. Demand for new commercial craft is expected to be to the tune of 40,000 ($165 billion) every year. The UK also has a significant maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) sector, across both civilian and military aircraft. UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) says Britain accounts for a 17 per cent share of the $45 billion global MRO industry.

Boom times

The industry is, by all accounts, booming at the moment. In a recent report, the UK government characterised it as a “phenomenal success story” and a sector that offers “tremendous opportunities for growth”. In June, ADS published its Aerospace Industry Outlook Report, which shows that the aerospace sector has grown at ten times the rate of the rest of the UK economy. Since 2011, it has expanded by an impressive 14 per cent.

That growth appears unlikely to slow. Figures from the ADS report show that 68 per cent of UK aerospace companies expect more than 10 per cent growth over the coming 12 months, while three out of four companies in the sector say they will increase investment over the next 12 months, and one in four is reshoring activity. Government investment and support have helped drive growth. The government is working with industry through the Aerospace Growth Partnership and on the aerospace industrial strategy. Ian Millard, aerospace business unit manager for Collingwood Executive Recruitment, told Re:locate that British manufacturing in general was doing well, and that this had played a part. “We’re still a very, very strong country for engineering, and British products are respected the world over.”

Highlighting trends that were helping drive growth, Mr Millard said, “The key growth area within aerospace manufacturing at the moment is anything that makes the plane lighter, makes it use less fuel. Those are the key things that are driving the industry. The cost savings from having lighter aircraft are pretty astronomical. The new generation of aircraft don’t actually look any different to the untrained eye. But an aircraft will cost an airline £100 million, for example, for an A320. They’re flying that constantly, but if they’re using less fuel, that quickly pays for itself.” That can be any part of the plane, right down to lighter seating or wi-fi-based in-flight entertainment that cuts out unnecessary wiring. These exercises in weight reduction are being driven by a combination of climbing fuel prices, the availability of new technologies, and customer demand for a better experience.

“In aerospace in general, innovation is being driven by weight saving and those incremental gains, rather than designing the next generation of Concorde. That’s happening at a very academic level, but at a business level it’s not that blue-sky thinking any more,” said Ian Millard. He did add, however, “I’d say the French, Germans and US are probably ahead of us in terms of innovating the real techy stuff. We’re more airframe and bashing the metal together.”

One upshot of the drive towards lighter aircraft is a need for skills in a handful of key areas. One is additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, which enables the production of parts quickly, cheaply and in small batches. UKTI notes a 12 per cent growth in additive manufacturing over the last year. Composite materials are also a key area, with 9 per cent growth expected in the next year. Another area that will need its staffing requirements met in the future is plastic electronics – electronic devices on flexible surfaces. It’s a field that currently employs 3,000 people, but UKTI expects that figure to balloon to 50,000 by 2027.

Bridging the skills gap

Drilling down, employers say there’s a need for design optimisation, CAD skills and finishing skills, as well as understanding of the new technologies coming into play. Particular jobs highlighted by UKTI include R&D engineers, material engineers, project managers and quality assurers. On the military side, Richard Hamer, head of education and early careers for BAE Systems, which counts submarine building among its activities, said, “As in previous years, we believe there is a UK shortage of naval architects and systems engineers. People with these skills are very sought after, and we have to work hard to compete with other companies to offer a good package and career opportunities.”

Mr Hamer also noted the need for skills relating to additive manufacturing, composites and plastic electronics, but said that it had not affected BAE Systems’ business. The real issues with skills shortages are likely to come further down the line. As with many engineering fields, aerospace has an ageing workforce. “The skills shortage will come in the next ten years,” Ian Millard said. “The growth of UK aerospace is massive, but about 50 per cent of our current workforce will retire in the next ten to 15 years, so there’s a huge gap in the middle.

“The industry is starting to attract people again – highcalibre graduates, engineering graduates, technical people – at the bottom. But then there are people leaving the industry at the top, and the middle is facing a shortage. And that’s not unique to aerospace. We find that in rail, in automotive, and in manufacturing in general, where, because ten or 20 years ago the apprenticeship scheme went out of the window, there is a gap between experience and technical knowledge.”

Mr Millard noted that there was now a much greater number of high-quality engineering graduates than was the case five to ten years ago. That’s not an unconditional positive, however. “From a general engineering point of view, what people tell me is that they have a hard time attracting talent from the universities because there are ‘sexier’ industries out there, such as automotive or consumer electronics, where things happen a lot quicker. “Aerospace is a slow burn in terms of designing a product. It might be two or three years before that product is on a plane, because it has to go through all the testing, all the certification. And then you might have to wait for a ten-year life cycle to end on your customer’s existing product.” In other industries, he added, the fruits of engineers’ labour might be visible in weeks. “If you work for Apple or Google, you see things on a daily basis.”

Laying the groundwork

What that means, of course, is that there are opportunities ahead for recruiters. “It’s a growth industry in recruitment,” said Ian Millard. “I think there will be more and more growth opportunities for recruitment within the sector as time goes by and people start planning for those retirements, and there will be succession planning for future recruitment campaigns and future roles.”

There’s plenty for the UK aerospace sector to look forward to, but if it wants to have the resources it needs when opportunities arise, it needs to lay the groundwork now.