Kickstart Your Aerospace Career – Freelancers, Clouds, Crowds, Open-Source, and Makers

A trend over the last 20 years is that of freelancers, or contractors, as they are also known. Knowledge workers who hire themselves out to companies temporarily.

In the 1980’s it was comparatively rare. You only went freelance if you:

  1. Were extraordinarily bold, and had no fear of being unemployed;
  2. Had a particularly high-value set of skills that were hard to find, and that companies were prepared to pay a premium for;
  3. Were approaching the end of your career, and had a great network of powerful contacts who were prepared to compensate you handsomely for some consulting (often business-development-related).

Downsizing in the 90’s

With the 1990’s, a lot of large companies found they had to downsize their work forces to stay afloat. The cast-off knowledge workers often went freelance because they had no other choice. Companies still needing their skills on occasion could hire them for short periods to get work done, and then let them go without worry.

By the end of the 1990’s, the aerospace industry had recovered, and needed those workers back. But the freelancers had now developed a taste for freedom, variety, and the greater financial rewards that go with increased risk. Companies now found themselves having to hire contractors involuntarily, and out of desperation. Their options were: (a) Hire contractors at rates that were uncomfortably high, or; (b) Hire Nobody, because there were insufficient permanent staff to be had.

It was Revenge of the Nerds.

I was a permanent employee at Airbus at the time, and knew many contractors. Hardly any were tempted to return to permanent employment. Those that were, usually regretted the decision very quickly, and went back to contracting as soon as they were able.

An uneasy truce

The pendulum has now swung back a bit, and there is an uneasy truce between aerospace companies and freelance knowledge workers.

The Internet has changed the game. It is now possible to package up work that can be easily defined, and send it anywhere in the world. The skills won’t come to you? Fine, we’ll send the work to them.)

Aerospace companies have grudgingly accepted that freelance professionals are not going to be persuaded to return to permanent employment. They have therefore structured their supply chains to minimize the risks of dealing directly with hundreds of freelance knowledge workers.

They instead hire smaller firms to handle the “procurement” of the necessary skills. These smaller “sub-contract” firms often then hire even smaller firms that act as little more than recruitment agencies.

It has become a pyramid-shaped supply chain of skill and talent, with each layer skimming off a tidy profit margin and then delegating the problem to the layer below. At the very bottom lie the individual freelancers.

Freelancers aerospace professionals still have a measure of freedom, but do not have the lucrative opportunities they had 10-15 years ago. They also must suffer multiple layers of bureaucracy, and the corresponding inefficiencies. Each layer can slow down the flow of useful information, or block it altogether.

Web 2.0, Clouds, Crowds, Open-Source, Makers . . .

Add to the mix Web 2.0, and all the online tools and trends that have accompanied it over the last decade.

Email is now free. Data storage is now free. Social media is free. Video broadcasting by individuals is now possible, and free. There are countless online tools that allow you to save time and outsource or automate unpleasant tasks. The costs associated with starting up as a contractor are now almost zero. What isn’t free, is very cheap.

The costs associated with starting almost anything are now almost zero.

Along comes YouTube, and it is now possible to broadcast to the world a video of university projects or your hobby at home.

Along comes Kickstarter and Indiegogo, and it is now possible to raise money for said project, even before you have completely figured out what you’re doing.

Along comes the Maker Movement, and open-source technologies like Arduino and DIY Drones. Bingo. it is now possible to develop and fly your own unmanned aircraft, for completely novel applications, and sell directly to the end users of the product. No need for intermediate firms or big bureaucratic aerospace companies.

These are trends to which the corporate aerospace world is only just (barely!) waking up. (Most senior managers are only just learning how to tweet!) They have heard about them, but don’t understand what the changes are, let alone decide how they are going to react.

Which means, they will react by doing little or nothing.

This poses a great opportunity for engineers and techies wanting to do their own thing! Especially for young aerospace engineers just getting started! (More on this in a later post.)

In the next post, I’ll get down to the question that obsesses us all at one time or another – How on earth am I going to find a job doing what I was trained to do?

13 thoughts on “Kickstart Your Aerospace Career – Freelancers, Clouds, Crowds, Open-Source, and Makers”

  1. I have to draw comparisons with the IT industry as I read this – after all, I’ve been in that field since the mid 90’s. Likewise, IT has seen the growth of the contractor market and a concomitant fall in day rates. As an IT contractor, I feel the general squeeze of the times, but I don’t feel particularly at risk of being outsourced to India (in IT it’s always India and never China – language issues, I guess.) However, what I don’t see reflected in IT is a pyramid structure. How many layers deep, in your experience, do these pyramids go? I wondered if this is likely to be down to aerospace being a much more tightly regulated industry which requires more assurance at each level (thus the pyramid serves a QA role,) or whether this is something intrinsic to the market for aerospace contractors. Any thoughts?

    I’m very much looking forward to the future post that discusses skill sets and how to get started.

    1. The pyramid structure is somewhat driven by the regulatory nature of the industry. Really it’s mostly driven by the desire to control costs.

      Managing suppliers is expensive. The supply chain costs are in approximate proportion to the number of your suppliers. So if you reduce the number of your suppliers, negotiate hard with them, and insist that THEY take the same approach, then in theory you reduce your supply chain costs. In theory. I’m not convinced it actually works in practice, but I’ve seen no data, and I’m not a supply chain specialist. (SUPPLY CHAIN SPECIALISTS, PLEASE ADVISE!)

      Whether QA is in the minds of people who opt to go down this road, I don’t know. I do know that having a hierarchical structure slows down the vertical flow of information, and makes it easy for suppliers with problems to bury bad news. Both Airbus and Boeing have discovered this to their cost. Not sure about the smaller commercial firms or the military ones.

      How many layers the pyramid has is a function of who you work for. Each layer has its own employees, and if they can’t source all the necessary skills in-house, freelancers as well. So if you’re negotiating a direct contract deal with a Tier 1 supplier, it will look like the pyramid has three levels, with you at the bottom. For most freelancers, there are at least four levels, and frequently more.

      The coming posts will probably raise as many questions in your mind as they answer. Feel free to email me at [email protected] if I fail to deliver the goods you need. I will be happy to reply directly, or answer in a subsequent post.

      One of the things that’s difficult with blogs like this is, The blogger has to guess sometimes what people are concerned about. I’ll get it right some of the time, but not all! So I’m delighted when people ask questions.

      1. Thanks for the answer. As far as possible we should keep the debate going on the blog. That way it’ll get better rankings in Google and hopefully drive more traffic and an ever better debate.

        One of the things I’m very interested in at the moment is open source tools for structures and aerodynamic simulation. Just recently I went to Coventry Uni for this: http://www.lightaircraftassociation.co.uk/Coventry/courses.html and I have to say this was an excellent introduction to the field since most of the tools used were open source – hence freely available. Obviously, this is at the polar opposite end of the spectrum from Airbus style aerospace, but great for me as that’s where my interests lie.

        What really interests me at the moment is how all the processes of design, construction and testing pull together throughout a project. Maybe that could be a future post?

        1. That link is AWESOME! I’m aware of the LAA, but had not looked at their site in a long time, so was unaware of the course or the open-source tools.

          Open-source will be a major avenue for people to get into the aerospace industry WITHOUT having to break into one of the large firms. Heading down this road, you’re being very clever. Open-source tools are being increasingly used by engineering startups – I know of a tidal energy startup using the Open Foam CFD tool, for example.

          Your point about pulling all the processes together is noted! I will work on that.

  2. Dear Mr. Kimbell,

    I have just recently found your website and I do find it really interesting. I have been a ‘wannabe’ aerospace engineer ever since my childhood. Unfortunately, having been born in Hungary this is not an easy mission. Although I have made some progress: M.Sc. and B.Sc. in Physics, B.Sc. in mechatronics (both in Hungary), exchange student at University of Arizona, research assistant at University of Wisconsin-Madison… Currently I am a PhD student at TU Darmstadt in Germany. My field of research is combustion modeling and CFD. In July I am heading to Berkeley to participate in a joint project for 4 months. I still have two years left but I think a lot about how to make my way into the aerospace industry.

    Not being a US citizen rules out a lot of options, however I noticed that NASA sometimes did not require citizenship for the post-doc positions. According to my former experiences it is almost impossible to get a position like this without having personal contact to somebody at the given institution. Without that all the e-mails tend to end up in the dustbin and remain unanswered.

    EADS and Astrium seem to be a great option as well, but I am not really convinced that sending CVs and motivation letters can get me anywhere no matter how good they might be. There will always be PhD students applying for the same entry level positions who have worked with the given department during their studies and it is completely understandable that they are preferred when it comes to hiring a new employee.

    I would be interested in your opinion as an insider: what is the best way for someone with the right qualifications to make himself visible? I have been thinking of a summer internship, but in the US it seems to be impossible without citizenship (I am wondering when these rules will be abolished. I honestly don’t see the point in keeping away talented and dedicated people from abroad.) and in Europe usually these companies are in connection with a few universities and they tend to favor the students participating in those dual programs (such as Astrium and TU Münich).

    Anyway, I try to keep my eyes open and look for opportunities. When I watched the sky 20 years ago I didn’t think that I would get this far so it is absolutely not the time to give up now. Meanwhile I am going to keep on reading your posts.

    Regards,
    David

    1. Hi David,

      I COMPLETELY relate to your situation. I can well remember trying to get that first job right out of university, and then again 8 years later when I decided to switch to aerospace. It can be very disheartening.

      You are quite right about CV’s and letter to people in EADS or Astrium. Waste of time, specially right now, given that you still have two years to go. Direct your energies instead towards networking with people in those companies who might stand to benefit from your work, or who might be interested in collaborating.

      A post-doctoral internship would be a great idea, but don’t restrict your field of search to the US.

      I don’t think being a non-US citizen is such a problem, unless you have only ONE thing that interests you, and you know it can only happen in the US. And even then, I would see that as an opportunity, because it means you have a chance to do something in the EU that NOBODY knows how to do. You just have to chase the funding and start a company to do it. (No, not a trivial activity, but MUCH easier and cheaper now that it was even 5 years ago.)

      (The US citizenship issue I find interesting, because right now, the US is in the midst of a big debate about immigration. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is spearheading a drive to make it easier for skilled people to get into the US, on the basis that many tech companies say they cannot find enough skilled Americans to hire!)

      What I would encourage you to do is:

      (1) Start your own blog, using WordPress, Tumblr, Typepad, etc, or all three. (There are other platforms as well.) Start writing about your work on these platforms. Talk about all the ideas you’ve got. (That was one of my motives for starting Aerospace Nation, for example.)
      (2) Get on LinkedIn, and any other social media you know that are relevant to your field. Network like crazy. Start your own Youtube channel and post videos of your work. Start you own Facebook page. Link between all these media.
      (3) Start thinking big. Dream big dreams. Look for possibilities to turn your current PhD work (or anything else you know) into your first job when you graduate. This will show your online followers (which you will have gained through your blog and social media channels) that you know how to start something new, from very little. Nothing impresses potential employers more. (And you may find that when the EMPLOYERS and RECRUITERS start chasing YOU, you turn them down because you’re having too much fun and making more money than you would working for them!)

      I hope this helps. You’re one of the people Aerospace Nation is intended for.

      1. Thank you for your quick response. I have some thoughts about it.

        “I don’t think being a non-US citizen is such a problem, unless you have only ONE thing that interests you, and you know it can only happen in the US. ”

        I agree with you. I have thought a lot about it and tried to get a picture about the European aerospace industry. Obviously the US is over represented in the media and every child dreams of NASA, but I keep an eye on the European news as well (EADS, ESA, Astrium, etc.). I have a feeling that the gap is becoming smaller and smaller. I would be interested in a post comparing the state of the industry and the opportunities in the two continents.

        I am already on LinkedIn and Facebook and I am getting used to the idea that it actually matters though initially I found it hard to believe that HR departments care about these sites.

        About a blog and a Youtube channel. This is where it gets interesting. As I mentioned I was born in Hungary, and I left the country about 2 years ago. I realized – being inspired by Neil deGrasse Tyson whom I heard speaking at University of Wisconsin-Madison – that science and technology are seriously underrepresented in the Hungarian online media. So I started a science blog filling a small portion of that gap with my humble methods. (http://voyager.blog.hu) It is getting more and more popular and has been linked on the biggest Hungarian news website several times. /I also have a blog about my journeys and experiences in the USA and Germany – wisconsin.blog.hu/

        Of course these are written in Hungarian, because I want as many people to read as possible and I didn’t intend to set a language barrier. Unfortunately it will get me nowhere outside the borders of my country so I am thinking of doing something like this in English as well. That would be a good practice of the language anyway since it doesn’t come natural to me to write in English and I have to think about my sentences more thoroughly than in Hungarian – as you might have recognized they are far from perfect unfortunately. The problem is the time factor… Doing a PhD, doing sports, writing two blogs, learning 2 languages, keeping an eye on the news, doing online courses on Coursera.org take a lot of time. Sometimes I think that time management is the most important skill nowadays and the hardest one to master. 🙂

        1. A post on comparative opportunities between the US and Europe is a great idea! Thanks for that. I will get to work on one.

          Sounds to me like you’re already well on your way with social media. You’ve got a LOT of stuff on your blog. How much of it is likely to be of interest to the English-speaking world?

          I’m wondering if you should have an English page on the same site, containing English translations of SOME of your best material. That is, as you say, a lot of work. Google Translate would provide a good first draft. From that, you might find that that you could find somebody on Freelancer.com or the Amazon Mechanical Turk to edit and proofread it for you, for quite little money. It’s a possibility.

          I recognize your comment about time management. I’m not sure it’s possible to ever feel like you’ve won the battle. I have a family to raise, contract to work, blog, learning Javascript and Ruby on Rails, and I try to be an active musician as well. I have no shortage of entrepreneurial ideas I’d like to chase, but only the same 7 days, 24 hours as everyone else. You have to prioritize the important tasks, and let the lesser ones go. (Or wait.)

          FYI, HR departments and recruiter DO care about LinkedIn and Facebook profiles. Although LinkedIn tends to be used to search for skilled people. They use Facebook to assess your character once they’ve found you (and often, therefore, to reject you).

          Facebook PAGES are what you want to use to promote your professional activities. Your personal Facebook site, you want to keep private to just yourself and your friends, to minimize your chances of being rejected by future recruiters.

          1. Unfortunately Google Translate can’t cope with the tricky Hungarian language. 🙂 It makes a lot of mistakes, especially when I use my trademark long sentences which are so common in my posts. But proofreading is not an issue in my case since my mother has been a teacher of English for 30 years. I think she speaks in English more often than in Hungarian due to having private students all day long.

            I think the content of my blog is pretty universal, I mean in it is not specific to Hungary (my private blog is, because that is about living in the USA/Germany, writing about experiences abroad to friends and relatives). The general idea was to write about recent developments in science and technology. Sometimes explaining the fundamentals of a given research project or physical phenomenon. I started it because there aren’t any websites in Hungarian which can be compared to PopSci or Discover, etc. Some posts are just translations of the original articles, but most of them are not. Anyway, once I manage to allocate a little more free time, I will get down to start an other blog probably using WordPress. Thank you for your suggestion.

            I am looking forward to that post about comparative opportunities. 🙂

            An other question popped in my mind yesterday evening: which magazines, websites, sources do you use and suggest in order to keep up with recent news in the industry? I have just signed up to SAE Aersopace Engineering (http://magazine.sae.org/aero/), but you might now some more. It could be a topic of a future post as well.

          2. It’s hard to beat Flight Global and Aviation Week for aerospace news. Flight tends to be more newsy, and presents a more balanced international approach. Aviation Week, being a US site, has a natural American bias, and also a military bias. It also tends to be geekier – you’ll get more information that’s of interest only to engineers.

            Two other sites that I look at occasionally are:
            (1) Vero Venia, written by a former Airbus future projects engineer, now in Canada. Not really a news site, but lots of engineering-minded commentary on what’s going on in the world of big commercial airframers.
            (2) Plane Talking. A blog site by a Australian freelance aerospace journalist. It’s a mix of news and commentary, with an Australasian bias that is a nice counterbalance to Flight Global and Aviation Week.

          3. The aerospace industry could really do with a Huffington Post equivalent – a fresh, news-oriented site that capitalizes on the open-source movement!

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