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Aerospace Industry Jobs Description, Careers in the Aerospace Industry, Salary, Employment - Definition and Nature of the Industry, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

workers plant aircraft spacecraft

The aerospace industry consists of firms that manufacture and assemble aircraft, missiles, and spacecraft. It is a large industry that, according to the Aerospace Industries Association, employed 466,000 people in 2006. Of these, 390,000 worked in the aircraft and parts sector, and 76,000 were in the guided missiles, space vehicles, and parts sector. Many federal government workers are involved in aerospace projects. Most of these workers are employed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or the Department of Defense.

Large private companies are generally given contracts by the federal government to make aerospace equipment. Thousands of smaller subcontractors provide the major companies with parts and supplies. While the largest concentration of both large and small companies involved in the aerospace industry is in California, there are also aerospace companies in New York, Washington, Connecticut, Texas, and other states.

Aerospace companies employ workers with many different levels of education and kinds of skills—from scientists to mechanics to assemblers. The kinds of workers needed vary from plant to plant. For example, a plant that designs equipment for a spacecraft bound for Mars requires a large number of scientists and engineers. By contrast, a plant that mass-produces engines for small private planes needs a greater proportion of production workers.

Aerospace is a rapidly developing field with many new discoveries occurring each year. Because of this, about one-fourth of all aerospace workers are scientists, engineers, and technicians. They do various tests and experiments in order to develop more powerful aircraft engines and better ways to propel rockets. They may also test models of new aircraft designs and new types of materials for spacecraft. Aerospace engineers play an important role in this industry. Other kinds of engineers such as chemical, electrical, industrial, and mechanical engineers are also employed. Astronomers, chemists, mathematicians, metallurgists, and physicists also work in the aerospace industry. Drafters and technicians of many kinds prepare detailed drawings, carry out tests, and operate sophisticated machinery.

About 37 percent of all aerospace workers have plant jobs. Some of the jobs they do are unique to the aerospace industry, but many are found in other industries as well. Sheet metal workers, for example, use hand or machine tools to shape parts out of thin sheets of metal. They must follow blueprints and other instructions exactly. Less-skilled workers operate machines that mass-produce parts from sheet metal. These workers include power shear, punch press, and power hammer operators.

Many machinists and machine tool operators are employed in the aerospace industry, especially in plants that make engines and propellers. Related jobs include those of tool and die makers and jig and fixture builders. Other workers have jobs in metalworking. They include riveters, welders, and tube benders, who form the tubes needed for fuel lines, electrical wires, and other purposes. In addition, heat treaters, painters, and platers finish metal parts.

Large numbers of workers are employed to assemble and install parts or complete components for aircraft, spacecraft, and missiles. Assemblers join wings and tails to the fuselage, or body, of an airplane. They also install equipment such as flight controls. Sometimes assemblers work only with one small part of a vehicle. Some assemblers, such as final assemblers or missile and rocket assembly mechanics, work on special craft—for example, on experimental models.

The aerospace industry employs hundreds of thousands of workers who manufacture, assemble, and inspect aircraft, missiles, and spacecraft. (© Ted Horowitz/Corbis.)

Many special kinds of inspectors are employed in the aerospace industry. Given that aircraft, missiles, and spacecraft are so complex, inspectors must carry out many sophisticated and thorough tests on both parts and completed vehicles. Among the more skilled inspectors are those who test parts bought from other aerospace suppliers. Machined parts inspectors and assembly inspectors check parts or major assemblies. In addition, a crew chief directs the flight checkout of a spacecraft or aircraft. The power plant, which includes the engine, propellers, and oil and fuel systems, is checked out by engine mechanics. The operation of the radio, radar, and electronic guidance systems is tested by electronics checkout workers.

Like other manufacturing industries, the aerospace industry also employs managers and administrators. Because the industry relies so heavily on new technology, these jobs are often held by people who have a background in science or engineering. Many office workers of all kinds are employed in the industry.

Education and Training Requirements

The education required to work in the aerospace industry depends on the job. Today, many plant jobs only require a high school diploma or equivalent, although when there is competition for jobs, plants often prefer to hire graduates of vocational school programs in electronics or mechanics. Some skilled jobs require several years of experience working at less-skilled jobs and learning production processes. Apprenticeship programs are available for many craft jobs such as those of machinists, sheet metal workers, and aircraft mechanics. These programs generally last from three to five years and include classroom instruction and on-the-job training.

Technicians usually train for their jobs at a technical institute or two-year college. Engineers, scientists, and managers generally need a college degree. Many employers offer formal training programs for workers at all levels to supplement their job experience. Some large companies also pay part or all of the costs of tuition for employees who take job-related college courses.

Getting the Job

If you are a graduate of a college, technical institute, or vocational school program related to the aerospace industry, your school placement office may be able to help you find a job. You can apply directly to a plant that makes parts or assembles completed aircraft, missiles, and spacecraft. Plants list openings in newspaper want ads, Internet job sites, and with state and private employment agencies. Professional and trade publications may list openings for professional and technical workers. Local labor unions may also know of openings in aerospace plants.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Advancement generally depends on education, experience, and skill. A production worker, for example, may start in a semiskilled job operating machinery, advance to a job in the final checkout of airplanes, and eventually become a chief mechanic. Some production workers become inspectors, supervisors, or, if they get further training, technicians. Technicians can move into engineering and managerial jobs—especially if they continue their formal education.

Spending on commercial aircraft has declined significantly in recent years, as a result of financial problems experienced by the nation's airlines in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States. Given the military actions abroad and the concerns over national defense, growth is expected in the demand for military aircraft, missiles, and other aerospace systems. Overall, employment in the aerospace industry is expected to increase by 8 percent through 2014, which is below the national average. Prospects are best for computer experts, electronics engineers, robotics technicians, and numerical control machine tool operators. In addition, some jobs are expected to become available when workers retire or take jobs in other fields.

Working Conditions

Working conditions depend on the job and on the specific plant. Most factory buildings are clean, well lit, and well ventilated. Some employees work outdoors. Conditions are noisy for those involved in sheet metal processing, welding, and riveting. Assemblers sometimes work in cramped spaces. In general, the industry has a relatively good safety record. Employees usually work a forty-hour week. Shift work is common. Most plant workers belong to labor unions.

Where to Go for More Information

Aerospace Industries Association
1000 Wilson Blvd., Ste. 1700
Arlington, VA 22209-3928
(703) 358.1000

Electronic Industries Association
2500 Wilson Blvd.
Arlington, VA 22201
(703) 907-7500

International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America
Solidarity House
8000 E. Jefferson Ave.
Detroit, MI 48214
(313) 926-5000

Earnings and Benefits

Earnings vary widely depending on the location, the kind of plant, the specific job, and the worker's skill and experience. In general, the earnings of plant workers in the aerospace industry are higher than those of similar workers in most other manufacturing industries. Benefits usually include paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and retirement plans.

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