Kickstart Your Aerospace Career – The opportunity gap

I started writing this post in response to a comment from a reader, who is curious about a perceived opportunity gap in aerospace between the US and Europe.

It’s not purely a perceived gap, of course. If the gap is perceived, then, to borrow from Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase, the gap is real.

If you live in the US, which has for the last 50 years invested most heavily in its aerospace industry (commercial, military, and all other sub-sectors), then you have the best chances of launching and growing a successful aerospace career.

If you live in a Western European country, your chances are not as good, but they’re still pretty good compared with the rest of the world. Things are improving, but slowly.

Let’s ask the questions, then.

Why do so many young people in Europe and in the US (let alone the rest of the world) still find getting an aerospace job so hard? Why is it so painful?

Why do so many aerospace professionals find themselves, after many years in the industry, completely disillusioned and dissatisfied?

Especially when most aerospace senior managers will tell you they are screaming for more engineers and can’t find them? Or if they can, can’t attract them? Or if they can, can’t retain them?

There are three words to describe the situation.

Broken. Broken. Broken.

Why is it broken?

Here’s my suggestion:

A vision and value clash.

When you are young, single, and carefree, you have little to lose. You are easily inspired by big visions and ideas. You are full of energy, and you want to change the world.

As you get older, you assume responsibilities and investments. There are people depending on you now. There’s lots to lose. You are more concerned about just retaining what you’ve got. Your high energy level? Ha. That’s long gone. Your income potential plateaus, so you worry constantly about costs. You outsource more and more of your activities, preferably to places and outfits that do it more cheaply. The big visions and ideas you had when you were young? No time for that now, I’m just trying to survive.

As recently as 50 years ago, aerospace was a young-ish industry. There were lots of experimental aircraft being developed, mostly on the military side, but not exclusively. “Hull losses” or “incidents” (we hate to use the word “crash” in aerospace) were still fairly common, symptomatic of what happens when you experiment: You occasionally get it wrong.

The funny thing about aerospace is, people like to fly, or at least, they like the freedom of being able to travel somewhere far away and quickly, but they hate dying.

Another problem is, company shareholders want to make money. Aerospace 50 years ago wasn’t terribly profitable. Too many “expensive engineers”, too many “incidents” . . . . were destroying their profits. Airlines started demanding safer, cheaper, more fuel efficient aircraft, and demanded to pay less for them. Government legislators furiously yelled (and still are yelling) about cost overruns.

So aerospace became increasingly safety-conscious and cost-conscious.

In short, aerospace grew old.

It’s still old.

One day this week, peruse a copy of Flight International or Aviation Week. Count how many articles you read about new aircraft or spacecraft projects you see. By “new”, I mean something that has been launched in the last 5 years.

There will be some. But most will be about projects that have been on the go for a decade or more. Many will simply be “tweaks”, i.e. a variant of a existing product.

I remember reading an interview of then-CEO of Bombardier, in which he was asked what new projects the company had in the works. His response? “We are comfortable with our existing product line.”

That’s the kind of thing you hear from a company that has little or no vision. No new ideas.

There are bright lights in places. Burt Rutan, sadly now retired, designed and developed one new aircraft per year, on average, throughout his career. His company Scales Composites is partnering with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic to put SpaceShipTwo into regular sub-orbital space tourism service. Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and XCorp, are also developing new craft, inspired by the vision of space exploration. Though he failed in the end, Vern Raburn made a noble attempt to put the Eclipse very light jet (VLJ) into production. (There were several other VLJ projects as well.)

Unfortunately, the bright lights are few and far between. And it’s devilishly expensive to be a bright light. Doing a tech startup today can be done with just a few dollars. Doing an aerospace startup? No such luck. It requires a massive financial investment up front, years before you see a penny of profit. And startup failures are far more common than successes.

And the opportunity gap between the US and Europe? It comes down to the US Federal Airworthiness Authorities’ willingness to relax the requirements for experimental aircraft, and NASA’s willingness to fund the private spacecraft initiatives.

However little aerospace vision there still is in the world, there still is some in the US, whereas there is none (okay, almost none) in Europe.

So if you’re trying to get started in the world of aerospace . . . . . . Recognise that you’re trying to get started in what is an old industry. There is functionally little difference these days between aircraft and bridges. Both are essentially infrastructure, and both simply bridge gaps.

When old companies go hunting for more staff, they are primarily looking for people who will fill the gaps in their existing products and systems. Bolts. Struts. Beams, ribs.They’re not after imagination or vision. They might say they are, but that’s most likely a ploy to get you talking with them. Once you’re talking, they’re trying to discern if you’re a suitable bolt. That’s why it can often seem like they’re closing the door in your face.

There are nevertheless some useful strategies for succeeding, if you have the patience.

In the final few posts in this series, I suggest five such strategies.

2 thoughts on “Kickstart Your Aerospace Career – The opportunity gap”

  1. Great post! Thank you very much! I can see my former beliefs being reinforced by your thoughts. As a young dreamer I would definitely opt for SpaceX if I had the citizenship. Unfortunately this is out of the question.

    However, recently I have found out more about Astrium and I even had the chance to visit the site in Ottobrunn for half a day. I liked what I heard. I find it amazing that NASA signed a contract with Astrium for developing the service module of Orion. In my opinion that is a hell of an achievement to get a job like that ahead of the big-shot US aerospace companies.

    On the other hand I was a little disappointed when we visited Rolly-Royce due to having some co-operation between the company and our university. They made a presentation about the current status of the company and compared to what I can read about GE – ADVENT, LEAP, etc. – I really lacked the attitude of invention and looking for new horizons. It was more about improving the well-established techniques and getting a few more %-s here, a few more there.

    1. I quite sympathise with your comment. When I wrote this post, I wrote what I wish someone had told me when I was doing my career switch into aerospace. (I doubt it would have dissuaded me, but it might have spurred me to be bolder, earlier.)

      In spite of all the reasons to be cynical, I would encourage you:

      Don’t quit your dreaming.

      Never quit your dreaming.

      Keep your wits about you, and you may in time see a way to force the industry to reinvent itself, even just a little bit. And if you can, you may be able to blaze a trail for other talented aerospace youngsters.

      I’m trying to do the same. (Though I can’t quite claim to be a youngster any more!)

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