The increased U.S. defense budget, record commercial aircraft orders and the launch of new programs have companies scrambling to hire engineers and others. Sometimes they are competing against tech companies for employees experienced in software or artificial intelligence.
This summer, a Coolhaus ice cream truck rolled up to the edge of Northrop Grumman’s Redondo Beach, California, Space Park campus. It offered free frosty treats — from Raytheon recruiters.
That’s just one hiring strategy employed by aerospace and defense companies these days. Lockheed Martin and Boeing have Facebook or Twitter accounts tailored specifically for recruiting. A Northrop Grumman billboard towers over a major thoroughfare south of Los Angeles International Airport, promoting careers at the company.
The increased U.S. defense budget, record orders for commercial aircraft and the launch of new, cutting-edge programs have aerospace and defense companies scrambling to hire engineers and other skilled workers. They’re especially interested in those with experience in software, artificial intelligence and autonomy — pitting them against tech companies for the same pool of workers.
Historically, aerospace and defense firms “haven’t had the Googles and Amazons and Yahoos to recruit against,” said Harold Carter, director of engineering and technology at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works in Palmdale. “Quite frequently now, especially in software-related disciplines … we’re certainly seeing it’s much more competitive.”
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Next year, the aerospace and defense industry will probably hire 58,000 to 60,000 people across the country in a mix of new jobs and to account for attrition and retirements, said Carole Rickard Hedden, editorial director of Aviation Week Executive Intelligence, which produces a yearly report on the industry workforce. About one-third of those hires will be on the West Coast.
That’s up from about 50,000 hires industrywide last year, said Frank Slazer, vice president for space systems and workforce at the Aerospace Industries Association trade group.
Kelly Maloney, president and executive director of the Aerospace Futures Alliance, the industry’s Washington state lobbying group, said she hears from aerospace companies daily about the talent shortage.
“Washington is experiencing a high demand for aerospace workers right now due to increased production by Boeing, and other variables,” she said.
Because Boeing this year stopped providing monthly employment data, it’s not possible to track the company’s hiring precisely.
However, after Boeing shed more than 6,000 jobs in 2016 and again in 2017, the two main unions report that this year it’s hiring again.
Boeing has hired more than 2,000 Machinists this year. With about 800 retirements, the International Association of Machinists union saw a net gain through August of 1,200 members.
Boeing’s white-collar union, the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, reports that Boeing has hired just over 1,000 engineers and technical staff locally through this month, though with retirements the union’s net gain in members is about 260.
Nationally, many companies are looking to staff up after recent program wins, including the stealthy B-21 bomber, NASA’s low-boom supersonic X-plane and hypersonic missile research.
Roy Azevedo, Raytheon’s president of space and airborne systems, expects the hiring boom to continue for years.
“It rivals what we saw in the 1980s,” he said. “The openings are roughly doubled from just about a year ago.”
As of last month, Raytheon had about 1,000 job openings in California, including 600 in the South Bay. Lockheed Martin’s careers page listed about 880 open positions last month in California, a “significant increase from anything in the past,” Carter said.
Although it doesn’t compare to the industrywide hiring numbers seen in the late ’80s and early ’90s, “we are in an uptick,” said Jim Adams, principal of the aerospace and defense practice at KPMG.
This most recent spike is partially driven by the Trump administration’s increased national defense budget, which totals $716 billion for fiscal year 2019-20. That’s a 2.2 percent increase from the fiscal year 2018-19 budget, and comes off a 10.5 percent increase between fiscal year 2017-18 and 2018-19, said Todd Harrison, director of defense-budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Lockheed Martin’s $247.5 million contract to build NASA’s X-plane has boosted hiring at the company’s secretive Skunk Works facility, along with accelerated technology development and other programs Carter declined to name.
A Northrop Grumman official has said the company plans to add more than 2,000 jobs by late next year at its top-secret aircraft plant in Palmdale, where the company plans to complete final assembly of the U.S. Air Force’s B-21. The Pentagon plans to buy 100 of the bombers by the mid-2030s for at least $80 billion.
To attract young talent, aerospace firms are constant presences on college campuses. Last fall, Mia Reyes, 20, met Northrop Grumman recruiters through a résumé workshop at a UCLA Society of Women Engineers event and took a tour of one of the company’s local facilities through her involvement with the Society of Latino Engineers and Scientists.
Those meetings led to an internship this past summer at Northrop Grumman, where the third-year aerospace-engineering student worked on stress analysis of aircraft structures. She’ll be interning there again next summer.
A major draw was Northrop Grumman’s work on the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope that is set for launch in 2021.
“That telescope is the coolest thing in the world to me,” Reyes said. “The science behind it … makes sense, but it sounds like sci-fi.”
Aerospace and defense firms face an increasingly competitive market for talent, as tech companies also look for engineers with skills in software and artificial intelligence, said Adams of KPMG.
Entry-level electrical engineers earn $75,000 to $80,000. With 12 to 15 years of experience, that salary could increase to $146,000 to $150,000, according to Aviation Week data. Entry-level software engineers in aerospace and defense make about $76,000, according to Aviation Week; the national average for those workers is about $95,000, according to Glassdoor.
Companies are also looking for experience in cybersecurity, electric- and rocket-power systems, as well as data analytics. Ten years ago, highly coveted job skills included systems engineering and electrical engineering, according to a recent aerospace-workforce report from Aviation Week.
Even when aerospace companies can compete for tech talent, they often have the disadvantage of having to meet requirements for classified programs. There is a significant backlog in conducting background investigations for government security clearances, according to a January report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. As of September 2017, more than 700,000 investigations were still in the pipeline, though the backlog has declined since the last reporting, according to a GAO official.