Kickstart Your Aerospace Career – What it feels like on the inside

The typical aerospace engineer went into the industry because . . . .

Designing aircraft was cool.

You’d get to stick your name on one of those birds up there, and tell your kids about it. You’d get to do detailed technical work, work with smart people, come up with new ways of doing stuff, make birds fly really fast, play with cool software that had pretty pictures, etc, etc. And, well, the pay would be enough to support you and a family, house, two cars, and an occasional holiday in the south of France.

And the best? You’d get to see the first flight.

(Not much gets aerospace types excited and emotional. Believe me, you get excited about first flight.)

Wow! Awesome, right?

Well, sort of yes, and, well . . . . . no.

Mostly no.

The reality

The reality is, unless you are working to produce small, general aviation aircraft, you are unlikely to see, let alone get your hands on, an aircraft very often. (Test pilots, flight test engineers, and actual airline staff are the notable exceptions.)

Most of the time, you will be in an office, with a desk and a PC (aerospace doesn’t do Macs, sadly). Sharing the office with dozens or hundreds of other people, all dressed to look suspiciously like the bureaucrats and civil servants you’ve always despised.

There is a huge amount of work that goes into the design and production of an aircraft. Some of it obviously is the aircraft sciences, the aerodynamics, the structural analysis, the CAD, the thinking behind even the tiniest bolt . . . . . . the FUN BITS.

Most of it the work isn’t the fun bits.

You will spend a lot of time sending emails, writing reports, reviewing reports, chasing information, which may be in a report somewhere, in someone’s head somewhere, or in a file on a computer in another country.

You will spend a lot of time chasing people to do their bit of work so that you can finally get started on your bit of work.

So that in the progress review meeting tomorrow, you don’t get yelled at because your bit isn’t done.

You will spend a lot time talking, listening, or falling asleep, in meetings. (This deserves a post of its own. Not today. Meetings can take on a life form of their own. Usually an alien one.)

You will work in close quarters with some people who:

  • Are very smart, very enthusiastic, and very self-motivated;
  • Don’t care anymore, who have lost the will to live, who haven’t the slightest interest in doing a good job (they did, once, but they let it get beaten out of them), who are just marking time until they can retire and collect their pension;
  • Are somewhere in between, but tending towards don’t-care-anymore.

Most people are somewhere in between.

Once a year (or if you’re really unlucky, twice), you will experience:

The PDR (Performance and Personal Development Review)

Eh? you’re thinking. That’s a good thing, surely?

Yes it is, in theory, when done objectively and conscientiously.

It should be an opportunity for your manager to review with you your performance over the last year; identify shortfalls, and determine corrective action; learn your personal career goals, and; set you new objectives and provide training opportunities for the coming year.

I have personally experienced a PDR done properly. (Not always, but on occasion.)

However, most aerospace professionals I know find the process a sham and a fake.

Too often, the PDR process is used to gather data on an employee that can be used to justify a lower-than-expected pay rise. Or to manipulate an employee into a role they don’t want. (Or to keep them right where they are!) Or to demonstrate good corporate citizenship to governments or clients.

Most often, it’s just viewed by management and techies alike as an unwelcome interruption, a distraction from the day job.

The Onset of Management

As time goes on, you will probably find yourself doing less and less technical work.

Most likely because you have accepted a promotion, and now have managerial responsibilities. You have a team of people to supervise, and keep happy and productive.

But you can find yourself doing progressively less technical work even if you have avoided promotion to management. Because now, you’re a technical expert in a niche specialty. Everyone expects you to know so much, and therefore, you get summoned into meeting after meeting for your advice. Or you get summoned to train up junior staff.

(This is why it’s so important to know yourself, and your ambitions, as described in Post 2. Some people thrive on people-to-people interaction, so finding yourself doing progressively less technical work is a bonus, not a hardship. But you must know, in advance.)

And now, of course, because of the global industry changes I’ve outlined in the last two posts, it’s quite possible that the company may not want you doing any technical work.

Because the technical work, the FUN BITS, have just been:

Outsourced

To a team halfway around the world.

Oops, correction: Three teams, in three different countries. And the company needs you to manage them and be responsible for their work.

Get the picture?

None of this is bad.

None of this is good.

It is just the way it is.

It’s what happens when you change with time, in a company of people who change with time, in a world constantly changing with time.

However, the net effect on you the aerospace professional, you the human being, is that you’re made to feel like a cog in a watch, a small part in a large machine. You begin to feel like:

A piece of mediocre intelligence with a human being attached.

And you begin to wonder: Is this what I signed up for?

Is this why I studied so hard in university, spending my parents’ (or my own) money?

Where’s the fun?

Where’s the adrenalyn rush?

WHERE ARE THE AIRPLANES?

Conversely, you might instead be thinking:

I’m not bothered by any of this. I can handle it. But I’m still trying to get my first aerospace job!

Or

I’ve got my foot on the ladder, but I’d like to climb! How do I navigate around the minefields?

Good for you.

You haven’t lost heart. Read on. We’re coming to these questions.

In the next post, I will examine some of the current trends and technologies that are turning the world upside down, and how they will affect aerospace.

And we’ll start looking at how they provide opportunities for individual techies like us!

2 thoughts on “Kickstart Your Aerospace Career – What it feels like on the inside”

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with this article. 10 years at BAE SYSTEMS as a subcontractor (temporary employee) before finally setting off on my own. Now I have the adrenaline rush. All was brought home to me at one engineers retirement speech when he went through all the projects he had worked on and I realised I could spend my whole career just on Eurofighter.

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