Aerospace and defense: working with “game-changing” technology
“It’s gratifying to bring the most advanced technology to those protecting our freedom.” – Curtis Pelzer, ONR
Baby boomer retirements will open up many more spots in aerospace and defense. Security clearance is a plus
By Sonya Stinson
In 2006, the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) in Arlington, VA, formed a special committee to address the anticipated gap in the STEM workforce as retiring baby boomers left the industry.
“Our industry is accustomed to cycles, but back then it looked as though this workforce shift would be more like falling off a cliff,” says AIA workforce director Susan Lavrakas. “About half of our workforce would soon be eligible to retire, and we recognized that there weren’t enough students studying engineering and getting the other technical degrees needed to fill our workforce.”
But the 2008 economic downturn made the workforce transition more gradual. The recession prompted many boomers to work longer than they’d planned in order to stay afloat financially. Recent and anticipated cuts in the federal defense budget make forecasting workforce demand even more complicated.
Lavrakas still expects engineering retirements to increase over the next three to five years, creating openings that will be most prevalent in the commercial manufacturing sector of aerospace. Although the hiring outlook in defense is “a lot hazier,” she says, there will be some openings “due to generational change and the need for specific expertise to drive innovation in that sector. But what the numbers will be and what the net change will be is still a huge open question,” she adds.
One part of the country where aerospace seems to be thriving is the Rockford, IL, area. Rockford has been a major manufacturing center since the 1800s, producing furniture, metalwork, farming equipment and automotive parts before becoming an aerospace hub, says Eric Voyles, vice president of national business development for the Rockford Area Economic Development Council and staff liaison to the Rockford Area Aerospace Network (RAAN).
There are more than 250 aerospace and aviation companies in the area, which includes northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, about half of them in Rockford’s Winnebago County. The largest company in the network, United Technologies Aerospace Systems, houses its second-largest facility worldwide in Rockford, with about 2,200 employees. The RAAN territory is also home to many aerospace industry sub-suppliers, including component parts makers and metal processing companies.
Voyles says Woodward Inc, which supplies energy control systems to aerospace and energy companies, is adding 1,400 jobs, including about 600 engineers. B/E Aerospace, Inc, which used the local business incubator to develop a new business unit for laboratory work, built a new facility that employs about 100 people and is looking to double its workforce.
Both RAAN and AIA actively support STEM education and workforce development, an effort Lavrakas says is “most critical” to the aerospace and defense industries.
“We are especially affected because many of our jobs require people who can qualify for security clearances, so they need to be U.S. nationals,” Lavrakas says. “If we don’t grow an American workforce with the right skills and coursework, we’ll go out of business. We can’t ship all our jobs abroad.”
Read on to find out what some other major employers in aerospace and defense look for when hiring engineers, IT specialists and other technical professionals, and meet some of the diverse people already building outstanding careers in the industry.
Pratt & Whitney team lead Jonathan Sandoval works to develop better products
As integrated product team lead at Pratt & Whitney, a United Technologies Company (UTC) business in East Hartford, CT, Jonathan Sandoval is helping to develop one of the commercial aircraft maker’s newest products, the Geared Turbofan engine.
“We are working to improve fuel burn and reduce engine noise and operating costs,” says Sandoval, who was named team lead two years ago after spending three years as senior design engineer.
He joined Pratt & Whitney after he graduated from the University of New Mexico (Albuquerque) in December 2007 with a BS in mechanical engineering. Last May, he earned an MBA from the University of Connecticut (Hartford) through UTC’s Employer Scholar program, which pays 100 percent of tuition and book costs. Since its inception the program has invested $1 billion in employee education.
“The main reason I decided to pursue an MBA was because I felt it would give me the tools I needed to advance my career and work with people,” Sandoval says. “Working with people is a key skill. It’s a soft skill they don’t really teach you very well in engineering school.”
Early aspirations of engineering
Science and technology have been part of Sandoval’s world since he grew up in Los Alamos, NM, home to the Los Alamos National Laboratories. As a teen, he moved with his family to Milford, CT, near Sikorsky Aircraft Corp, another division of UTC. He remembers seeing helicopters flying overhead and being intrigued by the work going on at the company.
When he found out Pratt & Whitney made the engines for his favorite aircraft, the F-14 Tomcat, he decided that engineering was the career for him and UTC was the place he wanted to work.
Even in his dream job, Sandoval has discovered that one of the toughest hurdles in the transition from college to career is effective time management.
“The most challenging aspect for me, and I think this applies to every business, is that you are always given a lot of things to do and there’s not always enough time to get it all done,” says Sandoval. He adds that his summer internship at UTC helped to ease the transition. “It prepared me for balancing that workload.”
“Pratt & Whitney is revolutionizing the aviation industry with its game-changing technology,” said Amy Liedke, manager of military engines and HR talent programs. “As part of our inclusive and diverse workplace, we seek the best and brightest technical talent, both in engineering and operations, to join our team during this very exciting time in our company’s history.”
Amy Hurley heads flight systems in spacecraft engineering at the NRL
Amy Hurley works at the Naval Research Laboratory (Washington, DC) where she’s currently a lead system engineer. She says the gist of her job is to ensure that her project is technically sound and meets all design requirements.
Hurley heads the flight systems section of the spacecraft engineering department at the NRL. The lead systems engineer, she explains, “is the single person responsible for all the technical goodness of the payload.”
A 1989 graduate of the University of Maryland-College Park with a BS in electrical engineering, Hurley has been with NRL nearly twenty-six years, starting as a co-op worker while she was still in college. She’d read about the NRL’s satellite division in a brochure at the university’s co-op office and decided to pursue what seemed like a fascinating job.
Today she’s a big advocate of co-ops and internships for the opportunity they provide students to gain practical experience. In her case, she says, one of the most valuable lessons was learning to work with people in a wide range of jobs, from electrical engineers to machine shop technicians.
At the NRL, Hurley enjoys having hands-on involvement in projects from start to finish.
“Many places are not like that,” Hurley notes. “You get your specs and you deliver some widget, but you never see where the widget goes or how it gets integrated.”
By contrast, NRL tech pros participate in the design and assembly stages of a project, its integration into a spacecraft and, finally, its launch. “You get the full experience, and you get to really have a lot of ownership,” Hurley says. “They will give you a lot of responsibility here if you show that you can handle it.”
Gary Norman brings Navy expertise to MSC as a division deputy director
The shorthand term for Gary Norman’s department in the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command (MSC) in Norfolk, VA is “C4S.” That stands for “command, control, communications and computer support.”
MSC is the naval transportation provider for the Department of Defense, and operates more than 100 civilian-crewed, non-combatant ships around the world.
“We are responsible for providing all the MSC’s unclassified and classified or secure computer systems and communications to support both the ships and the shore sites,” says Norman, who is deputy director of the service executive division at MSC.
Norman also oversees systems engineering and operational support for MSC’s civilian payroll system. And he manages the Mobile Sealift Operations Centers, a fleet of vans that are deployed to handle crises in various locations.
“I’m also responsible for the management of MSC’s afloat operations center, which is the equivalent of an Internet service provider,” Norman says. “That’s mostly to enable the ships to communicate back with us on shore.”
Before arriving at MSC in May 2012, Norman worked at the Old Dominion University Research Foundation (Norfolk, VA), under a Department of Defense contract authorized by the Intergovernmental Personnel Act.
Norman enlisted in the Navy after graduating from high school in 1981. “I wanted to do something technical, but I wasn’t quite sure what,” he says. He eventually chose to pursue telecommunications. As Naval technology evolved over the years, he moved into the IT field. Midway into his Navy career, he received a commission as an officer, becoming a subject matter expert in communications. He retired from the Navy in 2010.
His education progressed alongside his Naval career. In the mid-1980s, Norman earned an associates degree in business administration from Tidewater Community College (Virginia Beach, VA). In 2009, he got a BS in business administration, with a concentration in technology management, from St. Leo University (St. Leo, FL). He will complete his MBA studies in March 2013 at a local satellite campus of St. Leo.
Fostering progress in both systems and career
Despite his Navy experience, some aspects of his job at the MSC were brand new to Norman. MSC ships are manned and operated by civilians. One element of MSC’s mission is to support deployed Navy vessels by providing them with fuel, cargo, ammunition and supplies.
The civilian communication systems are less technologically advanced than what he was used to on combat ships, according to Norman. “Part of my role is to help us catch up,” he says.
Norman also has some ideas about advancing his career at MSC. “I’m starting to lean toward the acquisitions side of IT and, en route to that, maybe a more senior position. In a couple of years, I’d like to see myself as my boss,” he says with a smile.
Raytheon engineer Letia Blanco: early career engineer with a big impact
Letia Blanco was making history at Raytheon Company (Waltham, MA) even before she was hired full time in 2011.
A 2011 graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington with a BS in mechanical engineering, Blanco is a mechanical design engineer, working in McKinney, TX for Raytheon’s Network Centric Systems business.
Her recent work has been with thermal imaging systems, developing ways to improve image quality while making the instruments’ hand-held sights lighter and easier to produce. She’s spent the last year working on the newest generation thermal sight, creating the mechanical design and planning, organizing and implementing the prototype testing. The program is now moving into large-scale production, and her team was recently recognized with Network Centric Systems’ highest technical honor, the Excellence in Engineering and Technology award.
As a co-op, Blanco won an individual achievement award from the company for her detector mounting redesign for an uncooled thermal sight program. It was an unusual honor for a co-op.
She believes that “if you stay focused on the science” even early career employees can make a big impact. Nothing, she says, can beat the sense of accomplishment she feels when a component she helped design is finally produced. “I am one person in a huge company, but when that moment happens, I feel like an inventor.” In fact, Raytheon recently sponsored a patent application on one of her inventions. And she’s given technical presentations at several international symposia.
She also applies her time and energy to inspire a love of science in the next generation of engineers. In 2012, she founded Design Your World, a nonprofit formed to show young women that they can succeed in STEM. Several hundred girls attended the first DYW STEM conference last May, held in conjunction with the Dallas Society of Women Engineers and several other groups; a second conference is planned for the fall of 2013. DYW also collaborated on an Electronic Fashion Camp, which explored the world of e-textiles.
The key to getting ideas into development
Blanco likes to tell young and prospective engineers that they need to develop good communication skills along with technical know-how. “You may have the best ideas, but if you can’t communicate them to other people, you’re not going to bring those things from your imagination into development,” she says. Every engineering project at Raytheon, Blanco says, “starts with something in your imagination.”
Engineer Tao Jin brings his fascination with space to Aerojet
Working as a senior project engineer at Aerojet (Redmond, WA) has given Tao Jin the chance to indulge his longtime fascination with the space industry.
“It was also a natural career progression, because I started off doing design work and then became more involved with project management,” says Jin, who is assigned to the avionics and power systems division.
Jin recently completed a project for the Orion, NASA’s next manned deep space exploration vehicle. He led the team that developed the electronics for the Orion crew module propulsion system.
Project management: the big picture
Jin likes the big-picture vision created in project management and technical leadership. His previous engineering design work had focused on a single component of a given project, but his perspective changed after he took leadership roles, first at his previous employer and then at Aerojet.
“I got to see that higher-level, overall objective of what we were trying to accomplish, whether it was building an entire hybrid-drive system for the next military vehicle or developing electronics that go into NASA’s next manned space capsule,” Jin says. “That really is the most interesting part of my role.”
But having that high-level view, and the responsibility that goes with it, brings a lofty set of challenges. Jin is accountable for a host of project tasks, from coordinating engineering resources to dealing with external customers like NASA, and internal customers like the Aerojet program office and procurement department.
“The interaction among all the different groups is the most challenging part,” he says.
After graduating with honors from Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) in 2006 with a BS in electrical and computer engineering, Jin entered a three-year rotational program at another defense contractor. That experience sparked his interest in systems engineering.
At Aerojet, Jin would like to explore opportunities in program management and business development. He says the company has an active mentoring program through which his senior colleagues can work with him one-on-one as he learns about those roles.
Rosa Singletary is a network analyst at TASC
Helping a customer increase network bandwidth or modify the architecture of a network to increase its efficiency are examples of projects Rosa Singletary tackles in her job as a network analyst at TASC, Inc.
Headquartered in Chantilly, VA, TASC provides systems engineering and decision-support services to federal agencies, primarily in the national defense and homeland security sectors. Singletary joined TASC in October 2005, when the company was part of Northrop Grumman. Before that she was a network engineer with the CIA.
After she got her 1997 bachelors degree in electrical engineering from George Washington University (Washington, DC), she started in project management for the federal government. “But after a certain point, I decided I didn’t want to manage anymore. I wanted to play a bit,” says Singletary, who also earned an MS in telecommunications and computers from George Washington. “I wanted to go someplace in private industry where I could actually do hands-on work.”
As it turned out, after a few years of doing network architecture and implementation at TASC/Northrop Grumman, she returned to the role of manager. She found that one of her favorite parts of the job is helping to guide career development of the staff members under her supervision.
Tenets of career growth
Singletary emphasizes the importance of building a support network, but she also encourages younger colleagues to take the initiative in their own career planning. “They are the drivers of their careers,” she says. “They own it. What they do and how far they go depends on what they put into it.”
After three years of focusing on her current project at TASC, Singletary says she’s ready for the next challenge.
“I’m looking right now to see what other projects within the company I can get involved in, just to enhance my knowledge of what’s going on with our customer base and to get to know different people,” she says. “Again, it’s about building that network. The more people who know me, the more opportunities I’ll have in the long run.”
Harris operations manager Benjamin Rivera leads a team of engineers
Benjamin Rivera is an operations group leader at a Harris Corporation facility in Malabar, FL, who describes himself as someone who embraces his leadership role.
“I lead a team of manufacturing engineers whose responsibilities include owning the schedule, cost and quality of the products we build,” says Rivera, who is assigned to the government communications systems segment in charge of the Malabar Electronics Manufacturing Service (MEMS). “My tasks include ensuring that MEMS is staffed at an appropriate level, supporting customer requests and inquiries, chairing corrective action board meetings, working on proposals for new business pursuits, and monitoring our team’s operational metrics, then using those metrics to drive improvement.”
Rivera served as MEMS’ lead manufacturing engineer for two years before advancing to his current team leader role. Previously, he was a manufacturing engineer for the coating room and F-22 Raptor program at Harris, a communications and IT company based in Melbourne, FL.
Lessons learned along the way
A fascination with cars and how they were designed drew Rivera to study mechanical engineering at the University of Florida in Gainesville. However, he says, “after a couple of years of school and internships, I learned that I enjoyed being involved in the building of things more than the design of things.” He received a BS in mechanical engineering with a minor in business administration.
Rivera held either an internship or co-op position during each of his college years, all at different locations. He says these experiences were more important than anything else in preparing him for success in the workplace.
“I urge every college student I speak with to relentlessly pursue this kind of opportunity,” he says.
Rivera sees himself as an engineering manager five years down the road. He says the first step toward reaching that goal was talking about it with his own managers. “I’ve started getting invited to the right meetings and sent to the right types of training classes offered by our company,” Rivera says. “From there, I try to approach every task with a broader view of operations rather than focusing only on my piece. I’ve also considered pursuing a masters degree in engineering management, so long as I can work out the work-life balance equation.”
Industrial engineer Gabriela supervises staff and contractors at the CIA
Gabriela (not her real name), an industrial engineer with the CIA (Langley, VA), supervises staff and contract engineers in a department that supplies laptops, workstations and repair services for the agency’s information systems.
Data analysis is a key component of the work that Gabriela and her CIA team perform. When a customer or vendor presents an issue for the team to tackle, she takes on the role of investigator. “I have to sort out the root cause of that issue in order to try to resolve the problem and improve the process,” she says.
The search might start with a group discussion using a mapping process called the “fishbone” diagram. “The fishbone is a tool that we use to analyze the possible causes when a product quits working,” Gabriela says. “It’s like a drawing of everything that affects the product.”
Team members might first consider whether people are causing the malfunction, so they would draw a line for that in the diagram. Then they would draw connecting lines to words representing potential underlying issues, such as lack of experience. In a similar manner, they would diagram how the method, materials or environment might be the source of the failure.
Gabriela received a BS in industrial engineering in 2001 from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez campus, and an MS in engineering management in 2003 from the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico in San Juan.
Finding her fit
After getting her bachelors degree, Gabriela spent seven years working as a quality engineer and project manager in the banking and manufacturing industries. She applied for a position as a project manager with the CIA; she thought her experience dealing with processes and information systems was a good fit for the job. The agency agreed.
Gabriela hopes to get more resource management experience at the agency.
“I also want to mentor others, just as people here in the agency mentored me,” she says.
CIA seeks longtime employees
The Central Intelligence Agency takes a “whole person” view of its engineering and IT job candidates, says a technical hiring specialist with the CIA.
“We’re looking not just to fill jobs, but to find people who can put in twenty-five or thirty-year careers here,” the specialist says. “So we look at people not only for their technical skills but also for their interpersonal and teamwork skills, their innovation and creativity, and their motivation to work here.”
She adds that intelligence work often involves understanding what questions to ask and how to access the data containing the answers. “That requires a lot of technical expertise as well as good, basic problem-solving skills,” she points out.
ONR IT executive Curtis Pelzer likes helping those who protect our freedom
Curtis Pelzer says the most gratifying part of his job as an IT executive in the Office of Naval Research (ONR) in Arlington, VA, is “understanding that the work you do is an important link in a long chain to bring the most advanced technology to those who are protecting our freedom every single day.”
Pelzer became ONR’s deputy chief information officer and director of network operations about two years ago. Before that he served as a special assistant in the Department of the Navy Assistant for Administration (DON/AA), and director of the DON/AA office of information technology.
Earlier in his career, Pelzer managed a team of computer specialists that developed an electronic correspondence management system for the Secretary of the Navy, a feat that earned them a spotlight in a 2002 issue of CHIPS, the Navy’s information technology magazine.
Large-scale IT and its challenges
As deputy chief information officer at ONR, Pelzer is charged with executing the strategic and operations plans of the CIO, while his role as director of network operations involves the daily management of system engineering, network and helpdesk support.
“I just completed a project that moved sixteen terabytes across the wire in about three and a half days,” Pelzer says. “Currently, I am working on a project to transition three terabytes of legacy email.”
The most demanding aspect of his job, Pelzer says, is learning about the complexities of the ONR’s legacy network and its corporate applications. Another challenge is coping with the problem of missing documentation, which, he notes, “can make it difficult to troubleshoot problems.”
Pelzer received an AA in computer information systems from Anne Arundel Community College (Arnold, MD) in 2008. He’s currently enrolled in the cybersecurity bachelors program at the University of Maryland-University College, with the goal of steering his career in that direction.
Jill Blackwell, deputy director of civilian personnel programs and lead for operations at ONR, says the agency is looking to hire people with advanced degrees in science and engineering.
DIVERSITY-MINDED EMPLOYERS IN AEROSPACE AND DEFENSE
Check websites for current openings.
|Company and location
|Aerojet (Sacramento, CA)
|Missile and space propulsion; defense and armaments
|Central Intelligence Agency (Langley, VA)
|U.S. national security intelligence
|Harris Corporation (Melbourne. FL)
|Communications and information technology
|Military Sealift Command
(Washington Naval Yard, DC) www.msc.navy.mil
|Non-combatant supply delivery for the U.S. Navy; specialized missions
|Naval Research Laboratory (Washington, DC)
|Corporate research and development lab for the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps
|Office of Naval Research (Arlington, VA)
|Coordination and execution of science and technology programs of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps
|Pratt & Whitney (East Hartford, CT)
|Aircraft engines, industrial gas turbines and space propulsion systems
|Raytheon Company (Waltham, MA)
|Electronics, systems integration and other
technologies for government markets such as
defense and homeland security
|Sumaria Systems, Inc (Danvers, MA)
|Information, technology, engineering and
professional services and solutions for the Department of Defense, federal agencies, and the federal contracting community
|TASC, Inc (Chantilly, VA)
|Systems engineering and decision-support services for the federal government
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