Young people from secondary and tertiary schools and colleges saw the aerospace industry up close at the Education Day at the Singapore Air Show in February. But have they got the right skills? (Airbus)

The issue of skills shortages is a multi-faceted, global problem, which is now high on industry’s agenda. But how serious is the problem in aerospace, where are the shortages most acute and what is industry doing about it? CLARE WALKER CRAeS reports.

“What ails Britain? We know we need growth, we hanker after our history of innovation. Yet, while we talk of a chronic skills shortage and — rightly — deplore high youth unemployment as the sacrifice of a generation, we consistently fail to fix it.”

These impassioned words appear on the website of defence technology company QinetiQ, spelling out the company’s commitment to ‘The 5% Club’ and its goal to increase the recruitment of apprentices and graduates into the UK workforce.

“Here is an issue whose impact is both social and economic, whose consequences are nationwide and long-term. Here is a problem requiring all of us to stand up and be counted. Inspiring the next generation is not enough — we must invest in it.”

Apprentice push

QinetiQ’s call to arms has not fallen on deaf ears. Members of The 5% Club, including major companies such as Airbus, Atkins, MBDA and Babcock, have committed to having 5% of their overall UK headcount being on a formalised apprentice, sponsored student and/or graduate programme. They also promise to report on their progress annually in a public document such as the Annual Report.

This is just one of many initiatives, groups and reports (see panel opposite page) attempting to tackle the thorny issue of skills shortages, an issue that has been rumbling along for many years, but which is now achieving prominence in aerospace.

Several years ago, when Rolls-Royce took a close look at its works staff, it found that 50% were 45-plus, forcing the company to acknowledge the need to put resources and effort into Strategic Workforce Planning.

But it’s not just an issue of concern to the UK. Skills shortages are a world-wide problem. Royal Aeronautical Society President Jenny Body, who made skills one of the key focuses of her year in office, highlighted the issue in her speech at the Singapore Aerospace Technology and Engineering Conference in February.

The predicted growth in the number of aircraft and the current record order backlogs of major manufacturers, such as Boeing and Airbus, ensure that finding, developing and retaining a skilled workforce is a major challenge — not just to manufacturers but to the supply chain and operators, she said. An additional concern is that these skills are easily transferable to other industries.

“The new aircraft of tomorrow will be designed by the children who are only five or six today. So not only must we encourage them to become engineers — and aerospace engineers specifically — but also they must be educated in the new technologies,” she said. “To achieve this, industry, academia, Government and professional institutions must all play their part.”

A global issue

Beth Sherbourne is an apprentice at missile house MBDA — the company has signed up to ‘The 5% Club’. (MBDA) 

Her speech struck a chord with people she spoke to afterwards — from Singapore, New Zealand, Germany, America and Australia — all of whom confirmed the problem was not confined to the UK.

The influential Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) in America warns that it is not the actions of foreign competitors that could knock the US off its perch as the world’s leader in aerospace: the biggest threat comes internally as a result of skills shortages.

In the UK, the respected Engineering UK 2014 report concluded that Britain is great at engineering — its skilled engineers are world class and engineering makes a vital and valued contribution to the UK economy. However, at all levels of education, it does not have either the current capacity or the rate of growth needed to meet the forecast demand for skilled engineers by 2020.

But, the report acknowledged, there was a palpable will and visible evidence for partnerships, collaborations and concerted action across the STEM landscape to deliver the skilled workforce that the UK needs to remain globally competitive and economically sustainable.

No matter who you speak to, the need for collaborative action comes over loud and clear. Allan Cook, who knows more about the subject than most in his role as Chairman for Semta, Atkins and Selex ES and as a Council member of the Royal Academy of Engineering, declared:

“We just do not need another initiative. To achieve impact, we need a co-ordinated approach — with everyone working together, including Government, associations and the professional Institutions. Industry cannot do it on its own and neither can schools.”

He estimates he spends about 60% of his working life focusing on the issue of skills shortages. Given so much effort, how confident is he of a successful outcome?
“I am a dissatisfied optimist — I think there is more we should be doing, but we are at least doing something. We are all realising there is a business imperative to solve this problem.”

He knows the issue is costing companies dear. In Atkins’ case, he believes the company could grow its business by 15% rather than the current 10% but does not have sufficient skilled workers to achieve it.

“We operate on a international basis and we have skills shortages worldwide — in the US, Hong Kong, mainland China, Bangalore, Scandinavia, Germany, France and the Middle East. Last year we recruited 4,200 people, yet we still have 1,100 vacancies,” he said.

Where are the skill shortages most acute?

The Airbus apprenticeship scheme is now approved by the RAeS. (Airbus)

In the UK, skills shortages are most acute for composite and stress engineers, damage and fatigue tolerance engineers, systems integration engineers and manufacturing/production engineers.

According to Mark Stewart, General Manager and Human Resources Director at Airbus UK, one of the challenges industry faces is not having the ability to articulate in a robust way what skills are needed or to forecast what will be needed.

Susan Lavrakas, AIA Director for Workforce, said that, despite AIA and its member companies having been actively engaged in addressing the issue, the industry still faced on-going difficulties in hiring because not enough applicants possess the education and training in STEM necessary for certain positions.

This is known as ‘the talent paradox’ — when, despite high unemployment, employers still struggle to fill technical and skilled jobs, primarily down to applicants lacking technical or specialist skills.

“Today some jobs — especially in cyber security, software engineering and systems engineering — go unfilled despite significant unemployment in the economy,” Lavrakas said. “In 2013, the average age of aerospace and defence workers was 45. Among our largest companies, 18·6% of the workforce is already eligible to retire, and over the next 10 years that percentage will climb.”

She warned: “Our capacity for innovation will erode as retirements grow, unless we turn things around.” The problem for many companies in aerospace throughout the world is compounded by the classified nature of the most sensitive military and national security projects.

“This means that many of our jobs must be filled by Americans; we cannot ship them overseas or fill them with foreign workers in this country,” said Lavrakas.

What is industry doing?

 The Schools Build-A-Plane Challenge is a STEM project supported by the RAeS and Boeing.

Plenty, if you talk to Mark Stewart of Airbus. The launch in 2012 at Farnborough of ‘Lifting Off’, the Government’s vision for UK aerospace, set an overall aim to develop the technology and infrastructure necessary for the UK to remain number one in Europe and number two globally.

“However the focus is not just on technology, it’s also on how we retain skills, how we can up-skill our staff and how we can ensure the future engineering capability from schools, universities and colleges,” says Stewart. “Without doubt, we are at the cutting edge of technology, but you need the people and skills to innovate and exploit technology.”

With this in mind last year, industry and government launched a new bursary scheme, run by the Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering and under the auspices of the Aerospace Growth Partnership (AGP) to create 500 new MSc-qualified engineering professionals by 2017. To date, 52 Bursaries have been awarded, each worth up to £9·5k. 109 were awarded last year, 100 for study starting in 2013/2014; 10 starting in 2014/2015 and one starting in 2015/2016.

So far 129 applications have been received for Phase 2. What has particularly pleased Stewart is that, among all bursary holders, the diversity profile is good: 15·3% of awards to date were to females; 25·7% of females who applied received an award compared to 20·0% of males who applied compared with typically only 7-8% of women studying for engineering degrees.

Another initiative is the Employer Ownership of Skills pilot, launched by UKCES (UK Commission for Employment and Skills), which invites employers to submit proposals that raise skills, create jobs, and drive enterprise and economic growth. AGP is hoping for a share of the £200m funding available in 2013/14 with its bid focused on five critical areas:

1. Current and future skills shortages
2. Increasing and promoting early careers and providing apprenticeships and ready-made engineers on behalf of the sector through regional hubs.
3. Re-writing standards for apprenticeships and setting the benchmark for the sector.
4. Project management
5. Knowledge management

A notable development is the recognition by prime companies that, while smaller companies in the supply chain may be more flexible, they usually do not have the infrastructure or skills to support apprenticeships. To address this, the primes have committed to setting up five technical skills hubs to address current and future skills shortages in the regions.

How do we keep the pipeline of future engineers well stocked?

Sir Roger Bone, President of Boeing in the UK, believes that a three-pronged approach is the best way to stock the engineer pipeline, beginning with talking to young people aged 12-16 before GCSE and A-level subjects have been chosen.

“It also means doing much more to inspire young female students into these areas. At the moment only around 16% of young girls would even consider a career in engineering. We need to do much better. So there is a need for industry as a whole to engage with schools more directly.”

Secondly, he argued, industry needs to engage with students who have chosen these subjects to encourage them to look at aerospace as a long-term, fascinating career. With this in mind, Boeing provides internships and short-term placements to provide a taste of a future aerospace career.

“Finally, we need to demonstrate to parents, teachers and careers advisers how rewarding careers in aerospace are, as well as the true nature of the industry today, rather than outdated thoughts of oil-soaked people in very dirty factories.”

One of Boeing’s initiatives is the Schools Build-A-Place project, run by RAeS — just one of many initiatives being undertaken by the Society’s Careers Department. Such was the popularity of the RAeS Careers in Aerospace Live! show in November, the queue to gain entry snaked round the corner from its headquarters in Hamilton Place, London — a clear indication of young people’s interests in careers in aerospace.

“However, even having the right degree is not a guarantee of getting a job,” said Rosalind Azouzi, RAeS Careers & Education Manager. “Many employers, who can pick the best, are expecting a first-class degree with strong A-level results. In addition, online application forms are time consuming and require a lot of effort, which is tough if you are also working part-time to fund your degree. Students are also expected to show employers they have been doing extra-curricular activities as well as studying.

“Many think it is easier to get into banking and the banks certainly court students, taking the high-achievers out to dinner and offering high salaries, which is very tempting when you have debts and have had to work hard to get your degree. That said, many aerospace students really struggle to get internships and graduate roles, often with no responses to their applications, for reasons such as nationality, a 2:2 degree etc. We visit as many universities and colleges as possible to help students understand the application process and not become demotivated.”

Focusing on the early stages

BAE Systems’ Schools Road Show is expected to reach more than 25,000 schoolchildren. (BAE Systems)

After years working to resolve the issue of skills shortages, Allan Cook has finally come to the conclusion that the real problem lies in the education system. “We are not doing enough in terms of STEM at the early stages of education. It’s popular to blame the Department of Education and schools but we all share the responsibility,” he said. “I’m not arguing for increased funding in these austere times but for better utilisation of the funding we already have.”

BAE Systems, the UK’s biggest manufacturer, clearly illustrates its commitment to attracting the best staff by appointing a Director of Education, Richard Hamer, and grouping all its initiatives into its ‘Skills 2020’ programme, launched in 2010.

The programme, which represents a £79m investment annually by BAE to address existing and future workforce issues, includes its Schools Road Show, jointly run with the Royal Air Force, which is expected to be attended by more than 25,000 primary and secondary school pupils.

The current push by industry to create more company apprenticeships is not just good for young people, according to Hamer, it also helps alleviate the Government’s burden of funding higher education costs. He argues that students doing a vocationally-based degree often end up with a better, more relevant degree than a general university degree and have the huge advantage of already having a job. “If you invest £90,000 in training someone through an apprenticeship, you want that person to want to work for you,” he said.

An article on pilot and mechanic shortages will appear in a future issue of AEROSPACE.


Reach for the Skies – a Strategic Vision of UK Aerospace

Towards a UK Aviation Skills Plan

The Perkins Review/Attitudes to engineering: before and after Tomorrow’s Engineers Week 2013

Engineering UK 2014

The National Careers Council Report

Manpower Group’s Global Talent Shortage Survey

The CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey


Industry/Government aerospace STEM intiatives in the UK


Aerospace Growth Partnership

Talent Retention Solution

Semta (Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies)

Aerospace MSc Bursary Scheme

Aviation Skills Partnership

RAeS Education & Skills Committee

10 April 2014