Industry Overview: Aerospace and Defense

Posted by The Editors on December 3, 2012
Aerospace and defense manufacturers develop aircraft and spacecraft for the commercial sector, and military aircraft, spacecraft, missiles, tanks, and other products for the United States and other militaries. Nearly half of the aerospace and defense industry's revenue comes from the latter half of the equation. Within the United States, there is only one major aircraft manufacturer-Boeing. Its only domestic rival, McDonnell Douglass, was swallowed up by the maker of 747s in 1997. However, buying McDonnell Douglass didn't take out the competition-Europe's Airbus Industries has been steadily gaining market share in recent years and now ranks as the number-one aircraft manufacturer in the world.

Other companies manufacture aircraft parts-GE manufactures engines and Raytheon makes radar systems-but nearly half of all aerospace dollars come from the defense market (Hoover's). Lockheed Martin derives about 80 percent of its revenue from defense contracts with the U.S. government. Additionally, aerospace firms have large contracts with NASA. Lockheed and Boeing have agreements with NASA that equal 3 to 4 percent of their annual revenue-this includes the Space Shuttle, Satellite, Rocket, and other programs.

If you're looking at aerospace firms, you'll definitely need to consider the possibility of working on defense projects. Typically, aerospace projects have a high technical complexity factor and low output-the processes aren't overly standardized and require a significant amount of engineering effort to produce products. For engineers, this means that juicy problem-solving activities abound not just in product development, but also in production. Moreover, NASA and the defense department have more far-sighted designs than the next quarter's profits, which means that their projects are often for cutting-edge technologies. The effect for people working in the industry is that you get to work on things that are decades ahead of what the general public will ever see. As an insider puts it, "defense is R&D for the rest of the economy."

Increased Defense Spending
Industry insiders say that the government has committed to defense spending increases for the next 6 to 10 years. While this might not bode well for the federal budget, it does have advantages for people looking at careers in aerospace and defense. For those going into aerospace, this is good news. Defense spending increased by more than $350 billion in 2004. This year, defense spending is set at more than $417.5 billion.

New Defense Products
With the Cold War a thing of the past, it has become less likely that traditional forms of warfare will be the United States' primary defense concern. The new threat to national security comes in the form of small, decentralized terrorist groups. This means less demand for traditional weapons like tanks and increasing demand for new defense products that can help the military locate and eliminate terrorists before they strike. In the years to come, some of the most dramatic growth in the defense sector may come from makers of defense-related information technology products.

Competition from Abroad
The commercial airline sector has seen increasing competition from non-U.S. companies. Boeing, the designated kingpin of commercial airliner manufacturing in the past, is now running behind European aerospace company Airbus. Airbus has had steady interest in its soon to be released A380, a 555 passenger jumbo jet. Airbus also has made inroads in markets that have traditionally belonged to Boeing, such as mid-size planes for discount airlines.

Commercial Aircraft and General Aviation
This market segment makes airplanes and helicopters and the parts they're composed of. Aside from big daddies Boeing and Airbus, other members of the commercial aircraft and general aviation segment include corporate-jet manufacturers such as Gulfstream Aerospace and Bombardier, the Canadian company that makes Lear jets; industry giant Textron's subsidiary Cessna; and helicopter makers such as Bell, also a subsidiary of Textron.

Military Aircraft
These are the makers of our military's birds of prey, such as the F-15 Eagle jet fighter, made by Boeing; the F-16 Falcon, made by Lockheed Martin; and bombers such as Northrop Grumman's B-2 stealth bomber. Also included here are makers of other military aircraft, such as transport planes and attack and transport helicopters.

Missiles and Space
The big players here depend on U.S. and foreign-government spending for the bulk of their revenues. Powerhouses in this segment include Raytheon, which makes missiles including the Patriot and the Tomahawk; Lockheed Martin, maker of the Trident II missile and provider of management services for NASA operations; and Boeing, the primary contractor for the NASA Space Shuttle and International Space Station programs. As more and more satellites soar into orbit, launching has become another big part of this segment; France's Arianespace is the world leader here.

Ground Defense
These are the makers of the tanks and transport vehicles purchased by the military. Perhaps the most important member of this group is General Dynamics, maker of the M1 tank and other armored vehicles.

Satellites, Electronics, and Communications
Nonmilitary, commercial demand is sure to grow in this segment as countries around the world become more technologically intertwined. More and more, individuals and companies are dependent on satellite-based technologies for everything from communications to accurate weather forecasts to automobile-dashboard global positioning systems.

This segment also includes technologies like infrared, radar, and sonar, as well as avionics (electronics used in planes and helicopters for all sorts of purposes), missile guidance-and-control systems, and information systems (e.g., mission control in Houston and aircraft-modeling systems at Boeing). Big players in satellites, electronics, and communications include Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and Honeywell Aerospace.

The role of this market segment is to build and maintain seagoing vessels, including surface ships like destroyers and aircraft carriers as well as submarines. Included in this group are Northrop Grumman (which owns Newport News Shipbuilding, the sole maker of U.S. nuclear aircraft carriers, and Litton Industries, maker of the Aegis destroyer) and General Dynamics (maker of nuclear submarines, among other things).

The aerospace and defense industry is undergoing continued consolidation. During the recent recession, companies underwent significant headcount reductions. In spite of increased defense spending and interest in homeland security, Raytheon and Boeing, two of the country's largest defense contractors, each laid off thousands of workers in the past 3 years.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. employment in aerospace is expected to decline through 2012 due to foreign competition and the slowdown in air travel. Yet despite this decline, opportunities for those entering the industry should be favorable, as the number of aerospace-related degrees being granted is currently not adequate to cover the amount of workers expected to leave the industry through retirement and attrition.

Shhh! Top Secret!
For those into Tom Clancy or sci-fi novels, there can be something sexy about the aerospace and defense industry. This is, after all, where they developed the Star Wars defense system and the stealth bomber and where people are currently working on the international space station. For those lucky enough to land the right job, this is indeed an industry in which you'll work on exciting cutting-edge-of-technology projects.

Take off Your Coat and Stay Awhile
Despite extensive layoffs in the industry, people in many areas of aerospace and defense companies have more job security than those in most industries. One big reason: The projects that companies here take on are big and complex and come with long-term contracts. As long as the contract for the project you're working on continues, so will your job. And the hours aren't bad either: While your friends in other industries are whining about their hellacious work schedules, you'll be getting home for a six o'clock dinner every night during your 40-hour workweek.

This Is Not Your Father's Aerospace and Defense Industry
The industry still relies heavily on government spending, but today the emphasis is on finding ways to break into consumer markets-often by developing new applications for aerospace and defense technologies. NASA, in fact, has a goal of finding at least one non-aerospace and defense use for each new technology it develops. This is still an industry full of slow-moving, behemoth organizations-this is bound to change, however slowly, as the move into faster-paced consumer markets continues.

The Cutting Edge Is Dull
Despite what you might think about the industry, most of the work in it does not concern breakthrough technologies. Rather, you're more likely to be working with technologies that were cutting edge in the '80s or even as far back as the '70s. For one thing, it costs too much to update to the highest of high technology for most projects at most companies. For another, if they're using technologies that get the job done, companies don't see the need to change. If you want to work with the latest technological toys, it might be best to look elsewhere.

Like Turning around an Aircraft Carrier
These are huge companies we're talking about here. Boeing has more than 150,000 employees; Lockheed Martin has 130,000. And these huge companies are working, in most cases, on huge, long-term contracts: government contracts, for products that need to be tested, tested once more, and then tested yet again. People in the industry claim that this is often not a dynamic place to work. There's plenty of bureaucracy-and plenty of old-timers dead-set against doing things in new ways. If you're looking to work someplace where things happen quickly, where markets change daily and new products come down the pipeline every week, then you're looking to work in another industry, not aerospace and defense.

Odor-Free Industry
Engineers are smart. Engineers had to study hard to become engineers. Engineers design our cities, our roadways, and our machines. But there's one thing that engineers are not, especially in the aerospace and defense industry: highly compensated. The pay is pretty high for newcomers-low 40s or so for undergrad hires, low 50s or so for ME-degree holders-but the pay curve flattens out fairly quickly. Money can't be your big motivation in this industry. If one of your career goals is to get stinking rich, you'd best think about going elsewhere to acquire your odor.

Job Descriptions and Tips

Most of the jobs in the aerospace and defense industry are filled by engineers. In general, engineering hires with an undergraduate degree will start in the low to mid-40s and earn into the mid-50s in the early stages of their career. Those with an ME will start in the low to mid-50s and earn up to $90,000, and those with a PhD will start at around $60,000 and earn up to $100,000 or more depending on their level of responsibility. Nontechnical jobs start in the 30s and can also reach $100,000 or more, depending on the job and responsibility level.

The job descriptions in aerospace and defense are nearly countless. There are so many products being made here, after all, and so many different jobs to do to get them made. As a result, the job titles and descriptions that follow constitute a very general guide to industry opportunities.

Design Engineer
People in these positions design, develop, test, and implement everything from the smallest parts of ships or aircraft to the ships or aircraft themselves. Included here are aerospace engineers (who design planes and rockets and the parts they consist of, including landing gear, wing flaps, doors, and engines), electrical engineers (who design electrical systems for planes, ships, and other industry products), and materials engineers (who design the materials used in industry products). These positions invariably include copious amounts of computer modeling and will concentrate on designing small portions of whole systems or vehicles (the locking systems of emergency exit doors rather than the entire 747, e.g.) at the lower levels.

Avionics Engineer
These are the people who design the navigational systems for aircraft. Like all the other engineers in the industry, avionics engineers do a lot of computer-aided design and start off working on small sections of entire systems. These positions are filled by people with avionics and electrical engineering degrees.

Controls Engineer
A hot job in aerospace and defense right now, as aircraft become increasingly computer controlled, controls engineering involves the design of systems that interpret pilots' commands to the plane. Again, a lot of computer modeling is involved here. These positions are filled by people with aerospace and electrical engineering degrees.

Environmental Engineer
This has become a hot field in the industry in recent years. People in these positions have a degree in environmental engineering and design everything from noise-abatement systems (like those walls around the local airport) to systems to dispose of the waste resulting from manufacturing processes.

Research positions are filled by PhDs in physics, chemistry, mathematics, aerospace, and other hard sciences. People in these positions do basic research using computer modeling to test the aerodynamics, performance, and other aspects of proposed aerospace and defense products.

Software Engineer
Software engineers write and test the software used in guidance and navigational systems for planes, ships, missiles, satellites, and so on. Generally, candidates with bachelor's degrees in electrical engineering or computer science fill these positions.

Manufacturing Engineer
These engineers, usually mechanical engineers, design the tools and processes used in the manufacturing of industry products. Usually, people in these positions need to have managerial skills in addition to technical skills.

Technical Support Specialist
People in these positions test and maintain aerospace and defense products after they've been delivered to the customer, to ensure their reliability. Tech support specialists travel more than most other people in the industry, as they must visit client sites as part of the job. People in these positions usually have engineering or other technical degrees.

Instructors train customers in the use of aerospace and defense products. These jobs usually require a college degree, an instructor's certificate, and a pilot's license or some other proof of experience and expertise with the product in question.

Purchasing Manager
This position is one of the less technical entrees into the aerospace and defense industry and is often filled by people with an undergraduate business degree or an MBA. Purchasing managers find and buy the parts and materials needed to build aerospace and defense products.

Market Analyst
People in these positions study the aerospace and defense industry and how their firm fits into it, forecast trends in the marketplace, and recommend business strategy. This position is usually filled by liberal arts or business undergrads and MBAs.

If you're an engineer, you'll do better finding a job and getting ahead in the industry if you have a master's rather than an undergraduate degree. Master's degree holders receive better pay and better advancement opportunities than their undergraduate counterparts. And if you do go for your master's, make sure to do your thesis on a topic that relates to that aspect of the industry you want to get hired to work in when you apply for jobs.

Another thing to consider: Many of the big players in the industry recruit on campus. This means of recruiting is usually limited to regions in which a given company is located. With that in mind, here are a few things you can do to make your job hunt effective:

  • The best way to get a job in the aerospace and defense industry is to have connections. Does somebody you went to school with have a job in the industry? Contact her. Get your contacts to pass your resume on to people in the area in which you want to work. Then get on the phone and set up a meeting to kick-start the application process.
  • While you're doing that, you can also surf aerospace and defense industry websites. Most of the big companies have websites where you can check out recent news about the companies and get information on job openings in the United States and around the world.
  • If you're a college sophomore or junior or in the first year of your MBA program, and you're considering a career in aerospace and defense, check with the companies you're interested in to see if they offer summer internships. These can be a good way for you to learn more about the industry while making a positive impression on potential full-time employers.