If it’s so hard to get started in aerospace, and it’s so hard to have a long-term satisfying career in aerospace, is it even worth making the effort?
Here are five strategies for doing so. (And just for the record, I am applying a couple of these strategies myself currently.)
(1) Identify a need or an inefficiency that’s overlooked, and develop a solution.
Paul Graham, one of the early web pioneers and founder of tech startup VC firm YCombinator, wrote a brilliant post that condensed the process of starting a new firm down to five simple rules:
- Identify a problem that is overlooked, and
- That actually needs to be solved,
- By creating a simple solution,
- Launching it quickly, and
- Iterating rapidly.
It’s a virtual guarantee that in any office, be it a company or a university, there are inefficiencies in how people work. They are frustrating and time-consuming, but people have become so inured to them that they are overlooked every day. Sometimes they aren’t overlooked, but people are too busy, too frightened of getting criticized, or too frightened of change, to do anything about it.
Develop a habit of sniffing out those inefficiencies.
Sometimes those inefficiencies are just due to how complicated a process is.
Create a simple solution that cuts out all the non-essentials.
It’s almost a guarantee that somebody is going to love your cool solution. Bingo. You’re now a cool dude. If it’s a really cool solution, you may have just created yourself a new job.
It’s also a guarantee that somebody is going to hate it, and may try to kill it. That’s a sign that you’ve succeeded. Of course, they might succeed in killing it. Don’t sweat. Like I said, you’re now a cool dude, you’ve started the habit, and I bet you had fun doing it. Do it again. Something will work.
(2) Start and stay functionally freelance.
Don’t get fixated on the idea of a permanent, full-time job for life. Even if (imagine your luck!) someone tries to sell you that.
Sniff around for part-time work, or freelance gigs, or even volunteer work (that provides you with great experience).
This is hard to swallow if you have family responsibilities. (I know.)
You need to remember that as a full-time permanent employee, you have traded control over your future for the promise of regular income. The company needs somebody sitting at that desk, in that department, doing that work, unless they decide to move you over to that desk, in that department, etc.
The trade is not necessarily a bad one for you. But you need to be aware that it is a trade.
I recommend you nevertheless view it as a freelance gig, just one that comes packaged as a permanent job (for now).
Take care that the terms of the deal does not lock you down.
I made that mistake myself unwittingly.
After a few years in a big airframer, I was offered a pay grade promotion. Small increase in pay, but no more overtime pay, and a two-month notice period.
I said, “Yeah, sure, why not? What’s an extra month of notice period?”
Ostensibly, it means you are now a more precious employee, and they need more time to replace you when you leave.
Functionally? It’s a poison pill.
Firms trying to lure you away will generally tolerate waiting a month for you. They won’t wait two. The company knows that. I learned that the hard way.
I eventually gambled and left anyway, and it all worked out for me. But I missed out on untold earlier opportunities. Recruiters would ask for my notice period, and when I said “Two months”, they would just hang up.
View every job you do, when freelance or permanent, as a freelance gig. And don’t let anyone lock you down.
(3) Develop a skill and outsource yourself, i.e. develop a skill that has high automation potential, and develop the automation solution.
The odds are high that you will, early on in your career, find yourself doing something repetitive and mind-numbing.
It’s an unfortunate fact of life that newbies in any field of work often get given the work that nobody else wants to do. Either it’s boring, or it’s repetitive, or it’s something unpleasant.
That’s an opportunity.
Almost always, it’s a task that can be broken down into a series of finite, reproduceable steps.
Find a way to automate as many of those steps as possible, preferably by software. The software needn’t be complicated. it could be just an Excel spreadsheet or macro.
Those steps that can’t be automated, farm them out to someone somewhere that can do it for cheap. Chances are there’s somebody in the office paid less than you, and available. If there isn’t, it’s now incredibly easy to outsource small tasks via Internet freelance sites or via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. (Although the aerospace old guard still resists using such applications. Apparently, they’re considered insecure. If that’s the case, you may have to continue doing such steps yourself, frustrating though it it.)
Got the process automated? Bingo. You’ve just outsourced yourself and saved the company money.
You might at this stage be thinking, Why do I want to outsource myself and eliminate the job I worked so hard to get?
- You’ve just gained a very valuable new skill – starting something new that adds value to someone else. If you make a habit of starting new stuff, you will go a long, long way in ANY field of endeavour. It looks very, very good on your CV.
- Unless the company is in deep trouble, there’s never a shortage of work to be done, just a shortage of people and time. They’ll find you something else to do, and if they’re smart, they’ll put you somewhere you can continue starting new stuff.
- In the event the company management really is stupid (and sadly, that’s possible), there are other companies out there who will be delighted to use your new skill, and possibly even the very tool you’ve just developed. They’ll want to hire you, of course. If you’re a clever negotiator, you might be able to win the rights to the tool you’ve just developed, and start marketing it elsewhere. (You should be hearing cash register noises in your head right about now.)
(4) Develop another activity/career as your main income stream, and make aerospace a hobby or side activity.
No, I’m not kidding.
Just because you’re working (or have worked) your way towards a degree in aerospace or aeronautical engineering . . . . . . you’re not obliged to find a job in the industry.
And just because you’ve opted not to . . . . . . doesn’t make your education a waste of time and money.
Taking this approach does two things for you: It guarantees your regular income, and it ensures that whatever aerospace activities you do, will be fun. (Because you’ve chosen them, they haven’t been assigned you.)
Your main income stream might come from a non-aerospace engineering job. As I’ve said elsewhere, the term aerospace engineer really is a misnomer. You are simply a mechanical or electrical or industrial engineer . . . . who chose to focus on products that fly. Your skills are nevertheless very portable to other sectors . . . . . . very portable.
You could look for work in the financial sector, where they are constantly looking for people with excellent mathematical skills. I appreciate that the word banking has a negative ethical connotation right now, but it’s a case of a few bad eggs in the nest. Most people in the financial sector work hard and honestly, and . . . . . . there’s no denying it, you can make pretty good money!
If your software coding skills are good, you could get into the tech scene, which is simply exploding right now. If you play your cards right, and are bold enough, you can make far better money than you could in banking or finance.
Or you could try your hand at the world of eCommerce and internet marketing. It’s now possible to launch a website selling stuff for very little money down. (I’m trying this approach myself, though I haven’t had any success yet.) If you are patient and willing to put in the time and effort, you can potentially end up with a business and income stream that operates on autopilot, requiring next to no regular time investment.
And then, join an aircraft/rocketry project for fun in the evenings and on weekends! Launch a balloon to 50,000 feet. Build a drone. Build a microlight. (And fly it!)
Better yet . . . . . . . start your own project. One that nobody else has dreamed up yet.
(5) Be a change agent, and become an entrepreneur.
This is really just an extension of the previous four options. You may detect a market for something you’ve developed along the way, and nobody else, not even your employer, wants to take advantage of it.
As I mentioned earlier, aerospace is an old industry, crying out for reinvention, and new vision.
This isn’t for the faint-hearted. And it’s hard to do when you’re young and single, harder still when you have family responsibilities.
And the success rate in aerospace is, to be frank, terrible. SO FAR.
But the interesting thing about turning entrepreneur is this:
Nobody ever regrets having tried.
Ask any entrepreneur, irrespective of whether they’re rich, poor, successful, unsuccessful, still doing it, or not.
Just like I’ve never met a parent who regrets having had children, I’ve never met an entrepreneur who regrets having tried.
In the penultimate post in this series, I suggest some myths about the world of work in aerospace (and other industries) that you need to recognize as myths, real quick!