Flying above the doom and gloom

Written by: Evelyn Wright
Published on: 30 Jun 2016

It’s been a couple of weeks since the country’s vote to leave the European Union, and British engineers are still attempting to unpick the implications. For those in the UK civil aerospace industry – a sector long considered to be a shining beacon of British manufacturing – the impact remains unknown. But manufacturers say there are reasons to be optimistic, and, for many, it is business as usual.

Today, the UK aerospace sector is the second largest in the world, employing more than 110,000 people directly, as well as 126,000 people in the supply chain. It provides an annual turnover of £29bn with three-quarters of revenue coming from export sales. Airbus predicts global annual air traffic growth of 4.7 per cent over the next 20 years. In anticipation of this, companies have ramped up their investment in the UK over the past few years.

That’s unlikely to stop in the short term, according to Mark Edwards, director of aerospace and automotive at engineering recruitment firm Matchtech. For engineers looking to enter a career in the aerospace sector, the roles will continue to be as exciting and diverse as ever. “As a broad industry, with many forward-thinking companies striving to lead the way in terms of technology and luxury, aerospace is without doubt one of the most challenging sectors to work in,” he said.

If David Cameron has his way, a two-year formal process for a withdrawal from the European Union will not begin until October. In the meantime, companies will need to ramp up their skills base to make sure the UK remains competitive on a global stage. This means recruitment will remain high – and many companies have already reaffirmed their commitments to major projects in Britain.  

Boeing made a 40 per cent increase in expenditure with UK suppliers between 2013 and 2014. It currently has 2,000 employees at sites across the UK and has been hiring at a rate of one new employee per day. Airbus, meanwhile, has increased production rates for A320 wing sets in the UK to 42 per month from 35 a few years ago with a target of 50 per month by 2018. When it comes to recruitment, Boeing claims major firms state they are not cutting down on staff.

“Boeing remains committed to our customers worldwide, including in the UK and across Europe,” said Matt Knowles, communications director at Boeing. “Our partnership with the UK dates back to the 1930s and we have doubled our direct employment and supply-chain spend here since 2011. We will continue to grow our business in support of airlines and armed forces to meet their varied needs with our world-leading products and services.  We have an ongoing job to do in the UK, delivering for our customers. That does not change.”

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Airbus has a strong presence in the UK aerospace manufacturing sector

Ahead of the vote, Airbus warned employees that it would have to ‘reconsider’ future investment decisions in Britain in the event that it leaves the European Union. Following the results, chief executive of Airbus, Tom Enders said: “The world will not stand still, nor will Europe… I hope the divorce will proceed with a view to minimising economic damage to all impacted by Brexit. Britain will suffer but I’m sure it will focus even more now on the competitiveness of its economy vis-a-vis the EU and the world at large.”

He has since softened his comments saying: “Britain remains a member of our family. Our sites in the UK are among the most efficient and competitive sites in Airbus and competitiveness is the key word for our industrial presence in the UK but also in France, Germany and elsewhere in the world.”  

A similar statement was made by Warren East, chief executive of Rolls-Royce, before Britain went to the polls. He warned that a Leave vote could result in the company putting some of its investment decisions, such as a new £65m aero engine test bed on hold. After the results were announced, Rolls-Royce said it would remain committed to the UK.

"The UK’s decision will have no immediate impact on the day-to-day business of Rolls-Royce" - Warren East, Rolls-Royce

“It is important to remember that Rolls-Royce is a global company: two-thirds of our revenue and three-quarters of our order book is generated outside the European Union, so the UK’s decision will have no immediate impact on our day-to-day business.”

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The UK aerospace is the second largest in the world, employing 110,000 people directly

Mark Edwards, director of aerospace and automotive at engineering recruitment firm Matchtech, is confident that Britain will bounce back, and engineers will remain in demand in the civil aerospace sector. “Manufacturing and quality are the most in-demand skillsets. Recruiting for the latter is more difficult due to a greater skills shortage,” he said. “Companies are seeking quality engineers with a highly niche skillset and, consequently, have started to consider engineers from other sectors… such as automotive. However, the most common requirement is for design engineers within growing sectors of the market such as cabin interiors, mechanical components and systems.”  

In times of economic uncertainty, it pays to focus on a wider area of expertise as not all specialist engineers in the sector are in such high demand, added Edwards. Stress engineering is a skillset that has changed from being the most in demand to becoming saturated, with many people that had previously been contracting finding themselves out of work. “This has left a high number of highly skilled engineers seeking employment in a market with very few stress requirements available,” said Edwards.

“For stress engineers and employers, Matchtech’s advice would be to look at other suitable roles to which skills can be transferred. For example, we have seen stress engineers successfully move into certification, technical publications and design due to product knowledge, technical report-writing skills and high levels of engineering competency.”

Whatever the future of the UK, the civil aerospace sector has long been an industry that has global connections – not just European ones.

Engineers who are considering a career in the aerospace sector may be rocked by the current uncertainty affecting the mood in the UK, but with so many companies reaffirming their commitment to Britain, job prospects may not look as bleak as many first assumed.