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Finding workers is final frontier for aerospace firms

After doubling in size over the past decade, San Diego County's aerospace industry is finding it harder to find workers with the advanced manufacturing skills it needs, according to a report released this week by San Diego Workforce Partnership.

Since 2004, the study found, employment in the county's aerospace industry -- including research and development laboratories, and components manufacturers -- has risen from 5,000 employees to more than 10,000.

“While many traditional manufacturing companies have seen a decline in employment over the past 10 years … aerospace has thrived in San Diego," said Tina Ngo Bartel, research director at the partnership, a quasi-public agency devoted to job development and training.

Despite its recent growth, the aerospace industry is still less than half the size it was before the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, which resulted in the closure of most of San Diego's biggest factories.

It also has been outpaced by other tech fields, such as life sciences and medical technology, which now dominate the local market.

Nevertheless, the study said aerospace remains a "critical component" of such vital sectors as defense, advanced manufacturing and logistics. And with current trends such as the shift of unmanned aircraft from the military to civilian use, it could be "an industry in transition that can grow to become an even greater component of the San Diego economy."

The online employment site Indeed.com currently lists more than 500 aerospace-related job openings in San Diego County, including senior software engineer at BAE Systems (OTC: BAESY); antenna design engineer at Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC); composites manufacturing supervisor at General Atomics; aircraft painter at Affordable Engineering Services; avionics system design engineer at Encore Semi; aircraft mechanic at URS Corp.; and production control coordinator at UTC Aerospace Systems.

Although aerospace salaries vary widely depending on the job, they average $82,800 per year in San Diego County, compared with the countywide average of $52,400 for all industries, according to the partnership's study.

But many of the jobs also require a high level of education and training.

Two-thirds of local aerospace workers have a college degree, with 56 percent having a bachelor's degree or higher. In comparison, just 21 percent of county residents older than 25 hold a bachelor's degree.

In addition, local colleges don't always provide the kind of training that aerospace companies look for, often focusing more on engineering or computer-driven design than manufacturing or technician skills.

"We have difficulty in recruiting mechanical engineers with practical experience," one employer told the partnership. "Mechanical engineers need to have fabrication experience. They need to understand machine capacities, metal characteristics and tolerances."

However, another employer emphasized that engineers also should be trained in program management, since they "need to be able to see the whole picture and keep all the pieces."

Saddled with such specific requirements, roughly 70 percent of the 91 aerospace companies surveyed by the partnership said they had problems attracting mechanical, electronics, computer hardware, manufacturing and aerospace engineers.

Similar percentages said it was hard to find qualified machinists, software developers and systems programmers, partly because of competition with other employers seeking qualified workers, but also because of the specific qualities of the local aerospace industry, which is heavily tied to government contracting.

"Because our company has government contracts, we have the added complication of needing to find individuals who have security clearances, understand the politics of the nature of our business, and have good verbal and written skills," one employer told the partnership.

The report found that it takes an average of three months for an aerospace company in San Diego County to find a well-qualified employee for an opening, compared with an average of 25 days for other companies.

The report recommends that local schools, colleges and universities put more emphasis on hands-on training, including through work experience. It also suggested that local aerospace companies develop apprenticeship and on-the-job training programs, and seek government grants to do more research and development into projects capable of attracting high-quality workers and academics.

"R&D dollars provide a return by supporting graduate students, generating knowledge, creating innovation opportunities for small businesses around universities and building the next generation of talented engineers," the report said.

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San Diego Workforce Partnership

Company Website

3910 University Ave. Ste., 400
San Diego, CA 92105

San Diego Workforce Partnership Executive(s):

Peter Callstrom

  • Chief Executive Officer, President

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