Manufacturing Jobs and Careers: Aerospace Engineers


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QUICK FACTS:

  • School Subjects: Mathematics, Physics
  • Personal Skills: Mechanical/manipulative; Technical/scientific
  • Work Environment: Primarily indoors; Primarily one location
  • Minimum Education Level: Bachelor’s degree
  • Salary Range: $50,993 to $87,610 to $124,550+
  • Certification or Licensing: Required by certain states
  • Outlook: More slowly than the average
  • DOT: 002
  • GOE: 02.07.04
  • NOC: 2146
  • O*NET-SOC: 17-2011.00

OVERVIEW

Aerospace engineering encompasses the fields of aeronautical (aircraft) and astronautical (spacecraft) engineering. Aerospace engineers work in teams to design, build, and test machines that fly within the earth’s atmosphere and beyond. Although aerospace science is a very specialized discipline, it is also considered one of the most diverse. This field of engineering draws from such subjects as physics, mathematics, earth science, aerodynamics, and biology. Some aero space engineers specialize in designing one complete machine, perhaps a commercial aircraft, whereas others focus on separate components such as for missile guidance systems. There are approximately 76,000 aerospace engineers working in the United States.

HISTORY

The roots of aerospace engineering can be traced as far back as when people first dreamed of being able to fly. Thousands of years ago, the Chinese developed kites and later experimented with gunpowder as a source of propulsion.

In the 15th century, artist Leonardo da Vinci created drawings of two devices that were designed to fly. One, the ornithopter, was supposed to fly the way birds do, by flapping its wings; the other was designed as a rotating screw, closer in form to today’s helicopter.

In 1783, Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier of France designed the first hot-air balloon that could be used for manned flight. In 1799, an English baron, Sir George Cayley, designed an aircraft that was one of the first not to be considered “lighter than air,” as balloons were. He developed a fixed-wing structure that led to his creation of the first glider in 1849. Much experimentation was performed in gliders and the science of aerodynamics through the late 1800s. In 1903, the first mechanically powered and controlled flight was completed in a craft designed by Orville and Wilbur Wright. The big boost in airplane development occurred during World War I. In the early years of the war, aeronautical engineering encompassed a variety of engineering skills applied toward the development of flying machines. Civil engineering principles were used in structural design, while early airplane engines were devised by automobile engineers. Aerodynamic design itself was primarily empirical, with many answers coming from liquid flow concepts established in marine engineering, The evolution of the airplane continued during both world wars, with steady technological developments in materials science, propulsion, avionics, and stability and control. Airplanes became larger and faster. Airplanes are commonplace today, but commercial flight became a frequent mode of transportation only as recently as the 1960s and 1970s.

Robert Goddard developed and flew the first liquid-propelled rocket in 1926. The technology behind liquid propulsion continued to evolve, and the first U.S. liquid rocket engine was tested in 1938. More sophisticated rockets were eventually created to enable aircraft to be launched into space. The world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, was launched by the Soviets in 1957. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy urged the United States to be the first country to put a man on the moon; on July 20, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin Jr. accomplished that goal.

Today, aerospace engineers design spacecraft that explore beyond the earth’s atmosphere. They create missiles and military aircraft of many types, such as fighters, bombers, observers, and transports.

Today’s engineers go beyond the dreams of merely learning to fly. For example, in 1998, the United States and 15 other countries began a series of joint missions into space to assemble a planned

International Space Station. On the ground, space professionals, including aerospace engineers, have played a vital role in developing equipment that is used on the station.


Aerospace engineers study documents at a Beechcraft aircraft factory.

THE JOB

Although the creation of aircraft and spacecraft involve professionals from many branches of engineering (e.g., materials, electrical, and mechanical), aerospace engineers in particular are responsible for the total design of the craft, including its shape, performance, propulsion, and guidance control system. In the field of aerospace engineering, professional responsibilities vary widely depending on the specific job description. Aeronautical engineers work specifically with aircraft systems, and astronautical engineers specialize in spacecraft systems.

Throughout their education and training, aerospace engineers thoroughly learn the complexities involved in how materials and structures perform under tremendous stress. In general, they are called upon to apply their knowledge of the following subjects: propulsion, aerodynamics, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, flight mechanics, and structural analysis. Less technically scientific issues must also often be dealt with, such as cost analysis, reliability studies, maintain ability, operations research, marketing, and management.

There are many professional titles given to certain aerospace engineers. Analytical engineers use engineering and mathematical theory to solve questions that arise during the design phase. Stress analysts determine how the weight and loads of structures behave under a variety of conditions. This analysis is performed with computers and complex formulas.

Computational fluid dynamic (CFD) engineers use sophisticated high-speed computers to develop models used in the study of fluid dynamics. Using simulated systems, they determine how elements flow around objects; simulation saves time and money and eliminates risks involved with actual testing. As computers become more complex, so do the tasks of the CFD engineer.

Design aerospace engineers draw from the expertise of many other specialists. They devise the overall structure of components and entire crafts, meeting the specifications developed by those more specialized in aerodynamics, astrodynamics, and structural engineering. Design engineers use computer-aided design programs for many of their tasks.

Manufacturing aerospace engineers develop the plans for producing the complex components that make up aircraft and spacecraft. They work with the designers to ensure that the plans are economically feasible and will produce efficient, effective components.

Materials aerospace engineers determine the suitability of the various materials that are used to produce aerospace vehicles. Aircraft and spacecraft require the appropriate tensile strength, density, and rigidity for the particular environments they are subjected to.

Determining how materials such as steel, glass, and even chemical compounds react to temperature and stress is an important part of the materials engineer’s responsibilities.

Quality control is a task that aerospace engineers perform throughout the development, design, and manufacturing processes. The finished product must be evaluated for its reliability, vulnerability, and how it is to be maintained and supported.

Marketing and sales aerospace engineers work with customers, usually industrial corporations and the government, informing them of product performance. They act as a liaison between the technical engineers and the clients to help ensure that the products delivered are performing as planned. Sales engineers also need to anticipate the needs of the customer, as far ahead as possible, to inform their companies of potential marketing opportunities. They also keep abreast of their competitors and need to understand how to structure contracts effectively.

REQUIREMENTS

High School

While in high school, follow a college preparatory program. Doing well in mathematics and science classes is vital if you want to pursue a career in any type of engineering field. The American Society for Engineering Education advises students to take calculus and trigonometry in high school, as well as laboratory science classes. Such courses provide the skills you’ll need for problem solving, an essential skill in any type of engineering.

Postsecondary Training

Aerospace engineers need a bachelor’s degree to enter the field. More advanced degrees are necessary for those interested in teaching or research and development positions.

While a major in aerospace engineering is the norm, other majors are acceptable. For example, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recommends a degree in any of a variety of disciplines, including biomedical engineering, ceramics engineering, chemistry, industrial engineering, materials science, metallurgy, optical engineering, and oceanography. You should make sure the college you choose has an accredited engineering program. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) sets minimum education standards for programs in these fields. Graduation from an ABET-accredited school is a requirement for becoming licensed in many states, so it is important to select an accredited school. Currently, approximately 360 colleges and universities offer ABET-accredited engineering programs. Visit ABET’s Web site (http://www.abet.org) for a listing of accredited schools.

Some aerospace engineers complete master’s degrees and even doctoral work before entering this field. Advanced degrees can significantly increase an engineer’s earnings. Students continuing on to graduate school will study research and development, with a thesis required for a master’s degree and a dissertation for a doctorate. About one-third of all aerospace engineers go on to graduate school to get a master’s degree.

Certification or Licensing

Most states require engineers to be licensed. There are two levels of licensing for engineers. Professional engineers (PEs) have graduated from an accredited engineering curriculum, have four years of engineering experience, and have passed a written exam.

Engineering graduates need not wait until they have four years experience, however, to start the licensure process. Those who pass the Fundamentals of Engineering examination after graduating are called engineers in training (EITs) or engineer interns.

The EIT certification usually is valid for 10 years. After acquiring suitable work experience, EITs can take the second examination, the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam, to gain full PE licensure.

In order to ensure that aerospace engineers are kept up-to-date on their quickly changing field, many states have imposed continuing education requirements for re-licensure.

Other Requirements

Aerospace engineers should enjoy completing detailed work, problem solving, and participating in group efforts. Mathematical, science, and computer skills are a must. Equally important, however, are the abilities to communicate ideas, share in teamwork, and visualize the forms and functions of structures. Curiosity, inventiveness, and the willingness to continue to learn from experiences are excellent qualities to have for this type of work.

EXPLORING

If you like to work on model airplanes and rockets, you may be a good candidate for an aerospace engineering career. Consider working on special research assignments supervised by your science and math teachers. You may also want to try working on cars and boats, which provides a good opportunity to discover more about aerodynamics. A part-time job with a local manufacturer can give you some exposure to product engineering and development.

Exciting opportunities are often available at summer camps and academic programs throughout the country. For instance, the University of North Dakota presents an aerospace camp focusing on study and career exploration that includes instruction in model rocketry and flight. However, admission to the camp is competitive; the camp usually consists of two eight-day programs for 32 students each. (See the end of this article for more information.)

It is also a good idea to join a science club while in high school. For example, the Junior Engineering Technical Society provides members with opportunities to enter academic competitions, explore career opportunities, and design model structures. Contact information is available at the end of this article, Aerospace America (http://www.aiaa.org/aerospace), published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, is a helpful magazine for exploring careers in aerospace.

EMPLOYERS

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that approximately 76,000 aerospace engineers are employed in the United States. Many aircraft-related engineering jobs are found in Alabama, California, and Florida, where large aerospace companies are located. Approximately 60 percent of all aerospace engineers work in products and parts manufacturing. Government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Defense and NASA employ approximately 12 percent of aerospace engineers. Other employers include engineering services, research and testing services, and electronics manufacturers.

STARTING OUT

Many students begin their careers while completing their studies through work-study arrangements that sometimes turn into full-time jobs. Most aerospace manufacturers actively recruit engineering students, conducting on-campus interviews and other activities to locate the best candidates. Students preparing to graduate can also send out resumes to companies active in the aerospace industry and arrange interviews. Many colleges and universities also staff career services offices, which are often good places to find leads for new job openings.

Students can also apply directly to agencies of the federal government concerned with aerospace development and implementation. Applications can be made through the Office of Personnel Management or through an agency’s own hiring department. Professional associations, such as the National Society of Professional Engineers and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, offer job placement services, including career advice, job listings, and training. Their Web addresses are listed at the end of this article.

ADVANCEMENT

As in most engineering fields, there tends to be a hierarchy of workers in the various divisions of aerospace engineering. This is true in research, design and development, production, and teaching. In an entry-level job, one is considered simply an engineer, perhaps a junior engineer. After a certain amount of experience is gained, depending on the position, one moves on to work as a project engineer, supervising others. Then, as a managing engineer, one has further responsibilities over a number of project engineers and their teams. At the top of the hierarchy is the position of chief engineer, which involves authority over managing engineers and additional decision-making responsibilities.

As engineers move up the career ladder, the type of responsibilities they have tend to change. Junior engineers are highly involved in technical matters and scientific problem solving. As managers and chiefs, engineers have the responsibilities of supervising, cost analyzing, and relating with clients.

All engineers must continue to learn and study technological progress throughout their careers. It is important to keep abreast of engineering advancements and trends by reading industry journals and taking courses. Such courses are offered by professional associations or colleges. In aerospace engineering especially, changes occur rapidly, and those who seek promotions must be prepared. Those who are employed by colleges and universities must continue teaching and conducting research if they want to have tenured (more guaranteed) faculty positions.

EARNINGS

In 2006, the median salary for all aerospace engineers was about $87,610 per year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Experienced engineers employed by the federal government tended to earn more, with a mean salary of $97,240. Federal employees, however, enjoy greater job security and often more generous vacation and retirement benefits. The most experienced aerospace engineers earned salaries of more than $124,550 annually.

Aerospace engineers with bachelor’s degrees earn average starting salaries of $50,993 per year, according to a 2007 salary survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, With a master’s degree, candidates were offered $62,930, and with a Ph.D., $72,529.

All engineers can expect to receive vacation and sick pay, paid holidays, health insurance, life insurance, and retirement programs.

WORK ENVIRONMENT

Aerospace engineers work in various settings depending on their job description. Those involved in research and design usually work in a traditional office setting. They spend considerable time at computers and drawing boards. Engineers involved with the testing of components and structures often work outside at test sites or in laboratories where controlled testing conditions can be created.

In the manufacturing area of the aerospace industry, engineers often work on the factory floor itself, assembling components and making sure that they conform to design specifications. This job requires much walking around large production facilities, such as aircraft factories or spacecraft assembly plants.

Engineers are sometimes required to travel to other locations to consult with companies that make materials and other needed components. Others travel to remote test sites to observe and participate in flight testing.

Aerospace engineers are also employed with the Federal Aviation Administration and commercial airline companies. These engineers perform a variety of duties, including performance analysis and crash investigations. Companies that are involved with satellite communications need the expertise of aerospace engineers to better interpret the many aspects of the space environment and the problems involved with getting a satellite launched into space.

OUTLOOK

Employment in this field is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Shrinking space program budgets, increased job efficiency, and the continuing wave of corporate downsizing have all combined to cut severely into the aerospace industry. Nevertheless; the aerospace industry remains vital to the health of the national economy. Increasing airline traffic and the need to replace aging airplanes with quieter and more fuel-efficient aircraft will boost demand for aerospace engineers. The federal government has increased defense budgets in order to build up the armed forces.

More aerospace engineers will be needed to repair and add to the current air fleet, as well as to improve defense technology. Engineers are also needed to help make commercial aircraft safer, designing and installing reinforced cockpit doors and onboard security screening equipment to protect pilots, crew, and commercial passengers.

Despite cutbacks in the space program, the development of new space technology and increasing commercial uses for that technology will continue to require qualified engineers. Facing reduced demand in the United States, aerospace companies are increasing their sales overseas, and depending on the world economy and foreign demand, this new market could create a demand for new workers in the industry.

Even though the outlook for growth in this field is not especially favorable, graduates of aerospace engineering programs are highly sought after, since this field experienced a drop-off in graduates for several years due to perceived lack of job opportunities. With the right skills, talents, and determination, one can still find a promising career in this branch of engineering.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

For a list of accredited schools and colleges, contact:

Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology Inc.

111 Market Place, Suite 1050

Baltimore, MD 21202-7116

Tel: 410-347-7700

http://www.abet.org

For career information and details on student branches of this organization, contact:

American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

1801 Alexander Bell Drive, Suite 500

Reston, VA 20191-4344

Tel: 800-639-2422

http://www.aiaa.org

For information on educational programs and to purchase a copy of Engineering: Go For It, contact

American Society for Engineering Education

1818 N Street, NW, Suite 600

Washington, DC 20 036-2479

Tel: 202-331-3500

http://www.asee.org

The following organization offers information geared specifically toward students:

Junior Engineering Technical Society

1420 King Street, Suite 405

Alexandria, VA 22314-2794

Tel: 703-548-5387

Email: info@jets.org

http://www.jets.org

For information on licensure and practice areas, contact

National Society of Professional Engineers

1420 King Street

Alexandria, VA 22314-2794

Tel: 703-684-2800

http://www.nspe.org/students

For information on aerospace programs and summer camps, contact:

University of North Dakota

John D. Odergard School of Aerospace Sciences

P0 Box 9007

University & Tulane

Grand Forks, ND 58202-90 07

Tel: 800-258-1525

http://www.aero.und.edu

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