The Battle For Talent In Aerospace & Defence

6 min

The most overlooked asset in the business world is not machinery, property, or location, but talent – the people who will represent your business to the outside world and drive it forward with innovation and creativity. The Aerospace and Defence (A&D) industry is a great example of as much. The industry-wide shortage of talent is causing production targets to be lowered and putting new programmes at risk. To remain competitive, companies must rethink their recruitment strategy and harness creativity to attract and retain top talent.

As you will be aware, the A&D sector will see a healthy growth in volume in the short-mid term future, with an estimated 20,000 aircraft set to be built in the next 20 years. To keep up with the maintenance and build demands of projects of this nature, the dearth of highly qualified engineers will need to be addressed – in the next decade alone, the European market is predicting it will need 12,500 per year.

The problem seems to be that A&D is struggling to attract those with the skills to join our industry. Although around 120,000 engineers graduate from European technical universities, only 10,000 of these decide to work within the A&D industry. In Germany, 48% of all engineers work in the A&D industry compared to 36% in Spain, 33% in Italy and 33% in the U.K. This is a problem for all industries in need of engineers (and these are many). Based on research conducted by Verein Deutscher Ingenieure (VDI), there were 76,400 open positions for engineers and only 20,400 unemployed engineers in Germany. Airbus, a brand many of us might expect to have some considerable ‘pulling power’, said that out of 12,000 European jobs available in our sector, they were only able to fill 9,000.

And the talent gap is also affecting other areas of the supply chain, even for the biggest companies and OEMs operating within A&D. The talent sourced by these operators’ sub-contractors and suppliers could suffer, which poses the risk of making these companies ‘weak links’ in the supply cycle, particularly now that an increase in production is expected to be necessary.

Geopolitical events must also be factored into any talent acquisition plan for the future. While Western European and U.S. companies have to date been able to attract a lot of international talent from the likes of Russia and India in particular, China and India are two growing economies which are making themselves attractive locations for high calibre individuals and could provide more competition in future battles for global talent. All of the established A&D markets face similar issues with education, training, and the talent gap. The Aerospace Industries Association estimates that, of the 70,000 engineers that graduate in the U.S. each year, only 44,000 are qualified to work in the aerospace sector, with heavy competition faced by US companies in particular from world-famous tech companies domiciled there, such as Amazon and Apple.

Key Factors In A&D’s Talent Battle

It’s well-known that technology, and the hurtling pace with which it is progressing since the dawn of the internet is causing rapid changes (often reasonably called ‘disruption’) in all industries. And A&D is, of course, no different. But there are a number of other factors which must be considered when planning to meet talent requirements, which may be said to be more specific to our sector:

  • Competition - Hiring competition is exceedingly high for Aerospace & Defence. Graduated engineers are scarce enough in themselves, but finding the right people is not just a matter of qualifications, but also of the individuals hired having the right personality and skillset. Matters aren’t helped by adjacent industries competing for the same people, such as the Automotive sector, and new regions such as China & India proving increasingly enticing for global talent. The Automotive sector has, to date, been outbidding A&D on starting salaries for graduates, and some modernising needs to be done within work compensation models to offset. As a general rule, the industry should be looking to invest more in Marketing and PR talent to adequately communicate the benefits of working within such a modern and innovative sector.
  •  Demographics - As is well known, the Western world is facing challenges posed by a rapidly aging population, which will further constrict the supply of talent as companies lose many senior staff to retirement. In the U.S., as many as 50% of experienced engineers are expected to retire in the next five years. This general problem, experienced by many of the skilled industries, is particularly pressing for A&D, having been exacerbated by widespread defence cutbacks in the mid-90s. This has led to a ‘missing generation’, where operational talent between 40 and 50 – which, many would argue, are the prime years for leadership - is lacking.
  • Demand – High skills are in high demand – wasn’t it ever thus? Studies have shown that the number of U.S. jobs requiring complex actions with an advanced level of judgement required has outgrown employment in general by a factor of three. This has resulted in a shortage not only of engineers, but of skilled workers across the board.

Without a doubt, meeting talent requirements for the challenges of the future will prove critical for A&D operators to remain competitive. Missing talent means lost knowledge, and concomitantly, elevated risk levels for costly errors such as delays and failures.

What Needs To Be Done?

So, how should a savvy business operate considering the significant challenges which lie ahead in 2017?

Innovate Recruitment Practices - Key to recruitment in 2017 will be your employer brand, a separate brand identity which should be considered separately from how a business appears to its clients. In an interconnected world, it’s ever more important for businesses to be transparent about how they operate internally, and to be available to address any potential doubts or stumbling blocks which might prevent young talent from considering joining. Potential candidates under 40 years old are 61% more likely to take employer brand into account when considering a job so this would make a real difference at entry-level.

Examples of innovative recruitment practices include that of Airbus, which uses its Twitter accounts to talk to potential recruits. It’s also known for holding international recruitment days where candidates are quickly down-selected from applicants numbering in the hundreds. Elsewhere, Rolls-Royce provides financial support to approximately 400 PhD students, an innovative way to build a network of the top talent. Of these, 25% of the graduates are recruited, with many more connections built.

Globalise Your Recruitment Ideas - Our world is an increasingly globalised place, and a large portion of top engineering talent is being produced outside of the West, in places such as Russia, India, and China. Forward-thinking businesses should look to base some of their hiring operations in these areas in order to capture valuable talent that rivals might not have the foresight to access.

Improve The Working Environment - As salaries for highly skilled workers tend to be high enough to cover a comfortable lifestyle outside of the office, factors such as the working environment are given a higher weight by the best talent, who will typically have several comparable financial offers to consider. A modern innovation has been to introduce flexible working time, a model that is appealing to many engineers due to its allowance for a better work-life balance.

For example, EADS has started a flexible working time model, offering the flexibility to have extended periods away (for example, one year sabbatical with 2/3 remunerated). BAE Systems has created an “Assignment Panel”, a clearing-house of openings in the company, so employees do not need to leave in order to find new challenges. Northrop Grumman has implemented a highly structured rotation system where top talents spend their first two years on four rotations, supported by a mentor.

Improving knowledge transfer from experienced to young employees
The most pro-active companies will actively pursue opportunities to improve the knowledge transfer from older to younger employees, knowing the value of the senior staff’s experience and the importance of preparing younger staff to take over their mantles once they retire. BAE Systems, for example, has established a very aggressive mentoring programme to ensure that knowledge is being passed down from one generation to another. Other A&D companies should follow suit.


The A&D industry in the next decade needs to focus on ensuring that they are able to secure, retain and develop the right talent to fulfil the opportunities in the market and continue to grow.

In order to achieve this, the focus must be upon understanding clearly what talent they need, what the total potential candidates pool looks like, whom they are competing against for talent and what factors are most important to these potential recruits. And the challenge doesn’t stop there. Once they have recruited the needed talent, they must ensure that they provide opportunities for development to keep their people motivated, engaged and committed to the organisation.

My best advice would be to consider talent from a variety of backgrounds and keep an open mind. In my work at CSG, I’ve often found that clients have been pleasantly surprised with candidates that they may not have otherwise considered. We always strike to take a personal approach and it garners great results for both clients and candidates.

If you are seeking a fresh perspective on your recruitment targets and priorities for 2017, we might be able to help. Email us at or call us directly on 0333 323 2000 to discover what options are available to you to help tackle the growing competition for high calibre talent.