Aerospace Product and Parts Manufacturing Industries

Significant Points

Nature of the Industry[About this section] [To Top]

Goods and services. For most of history, the idea of moving people or objects through the air or into space was inconceivable. Today, however, airplanes are the fastest way to move people and goods around the world, and space travel has gone from being a dream to reality. From the TV traffic helicopter to the B-2 bomber to the voyager space probe, everything that moves through the air or space is produced by the aerospace industry.

Because of the high speeds that most aerospace products move at, they must be strong, but since they also must defy gravity, they also need to be light. As a result, workers in this industry use many specialized materials in production. Titanium and aluminum alloys are common, as are advanced composite materials. Because of the extreme conditions aerospace equipment operates in, parts must be designed and manufactured to precise specification; the smallest error could lead to failure of the finished product. As a result, significant testing occurs at each stage of the production process.

Industry organization. Firms producing transport aircraft make up the largest segment of the civil (nonmilitary) aircraft portion of the industry. Civil transport aircraft are produced for air transportation businesses such as airlines and cargo transportation companies. These aircraft range from small turboprops to wide-body jets and are used to move people and goods all over the world. Another segment of civil aircraft is general aviation aircraft. Aircraft in this segment range from small two-seaters designed for leisure use to corporate jets used for business transport. Civil helicopters, which make up one of the smallest segments of civil aircraft, are commonly used by police and large city traffic departments, emergency medical services, and businesses such as oil and mining companies that need to transport people to remote worksites.

Aircraft engine manufacturers produce the engines used in civil and military aircraft. Because of the specialized work involved, aircraft engines are usually manufactured by separate companies, although they are designed and built according to the aircraft design and performance specifications of the aircraft manufacturers. Aircraft manufacturers may use engines designed by different companies on the same type of aircraft.

Military aircraft and helicopters are purchased by governments to meet national defense needs, such as delivering weapons to military targets and transporting troops and equipment around the globe. Some of these aircraft are specifically designed to deliver or guide a powerful array of ordnance to military targets with tremendous maneuverability and low detectability. Other aircraft, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, are produced to gather defense intelligence such as radio signals or to monitor movement on the ground.

Firms producing guided missiles and missile propulsion units sell primarily to military and government organizations. Although missiles are viewed predominantly as offensive weapons, improved guidance systems have led to their use as defensive systems. This part of the industry also produces space vehicles and the rockets for launching them into space. Consumers of spacecraft include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), telecommunications companies, television networks, and news organizations. Firms producing space satellites are discussed with the computer and electronic product manufacturing industry in this publication because satellites are primarily electronic products.

The Federal Government traditionally has been the aerospace industry's biggest customer. The vast majority of Government contracts to purchase aerospace equipment are awarded by DOD. NASA also is a major purchaser of the industry's products and services, mainly for space vehicles and launch services.

The aerospace industry is dominated by a few large firms that contract to produce aircraft with Government and private businesses, usually airline and cargo transportation companies. These large firms, in turn, subcontract with smaller firms to produce specific systems and parts for their vehicles. Government purchases are largely related to defense. Typically, DOD announces its need for military aircraft or missile systems, specifying a multitude of requirements. Large firms specializing in defense products subsequently submit bids, detailing proposed technical solutions and designs, along with cost estimates, hoping to win the contract. Firms also may research and develop materials, electronics, and components relating to their bid, often at their own expense, to improve their chances of winning the contract. Following a negotiation phase, a manufacturer is selected and a prototype is developed and built, then tested and evaluated. If approved by DOD, the craft or system enters production. This process usually takes many years.

Recent developments. The way in which commercial and military aircraft are designed, developed, and produced continues to undergo significant change in response to the need to cut costs and deliver products faster. Firms producing commercial aircraft have reduced development time drastically through computer-aided design and drafting (CADD), which allows firms to design and test an entire aircraft, including the individual parts, by computer; the specifications of these parts can be sent electronically to subcontractors around the world who use them to produce the parts. Increasingly, firms bring together teams composed of customers, engineers, and production workers to pool ideas and make decisions concerning the aircraft at every phase of product development. Additionally, the military has changed its design philosophy, using commercially available, off-the-shelf technology when appropriate, rather than developing new customized components.

Commercial airlines and private businesses typically identify their needs for a particular model of new aircraft based on a number of factors, including the routes they fly. After specifying requirements such as range, size, cargo capacity, type of engine, and seating arrangements, the airlines invite manufacturers of civil aircraft and aircraft engines to submit bids. Selection ultimately is based on a manufacturer's ability to deliver reliable aircraft that best fit the purchaser's stated market needs at the lowest cost and at favorable financing terms.

Working Conditions[About this section] [To Top]

Hours. The average production employee in aerospace products and parts production worked 43.6 hours a week in 2008, compared with 40.8 hours a week for all manufacturing workers and 33.6 hours a week for workers in all private industries. About half of all workers in this industry worked a standard 40-hour week. Part-time work is unusual.

Work environment. Working conditions in aerospace manufacturing facilities vary. Most new plants, in contrast to older facilities, are spacious, well lit, and modern, although specific work environments usually depend on occupation and the age of the production line. Engineers, scientists, and technicians frequently work in office settings or laboratories, although production engineers may spend much of their time with production workers on the factory floor. Production workers, such as welders and other assemblers, may have to cope with high noise levels. Oil, grease, and grime often are present, and some workers may face exposure to volatile organic compounds found in solvents, paints, and coatings. Heavy lifting is required for some production jobs.

Employment[To Top]

Aerospace manufacturers employed 503,900 wage and salary workers in 2008. Employment data in this statement do not include aerospace R&D-related workers who work in separate establishments. Under the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS), workers in research and development establishments that are not part of a manufacturing facility are included in a separate industry—research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences. This industry is covered in the statement on scientific research and development services. Given the importance of R&D work to the aerospace manufacturing industry, however, aerospace-related R&D occupations and issues are discussed in the following sections, even though much of their employment is not included in the employment data in this statement.

In 2008, about 3,100 establishments made up the aerospace industry. In the aerospace parts industry, most establishments were operated by subcontractors that manufacture parts and employ fewer than 100 workers. Nevertheless, 61 percent of the jobs in aerospace manufacturing were in large establishments that employed 1,000 or more workers.

The largest numbers of aerospace jobs were in California and Washington, although many also were located in Texas, Kansas, Connecticut, and Arizona.

Occupations in the Industry[To Top]

The design and manufacture of the technologically sophisticated products of the aerospace industry require the input and skills of a variety of workers. Production, professional and related, administrative support, and managerial occupations make up the bulk of employment. Those employed in managerial and administrative support occupations manage the design process and factory operations, coordinate the hundreds of thousands of parts that are assembled into an aircraft, and ensure compliance with Federal recordkeeping regulations.

Professional and related occupations. The aerospace industry invests a great deal of time and money in developing new products and improving existing ones, and much of this work is performed by engineers and workers in computer and mathematical science occupations, who make up 24 percent of the industry (table 1). In addition, as mentioned in the previous section, many more aerospace-related professionals work in the scientific research and development services industry.

Aerospace engineers are integral members of the teams that research, design, test, and produce aerospace vehicles. Some specialize in areas such as structural design, guidance, navigation and control, and instrumentation and communication. Other types of engineers also contribute to the research for and development and production of aerospace products. For example, mechanical engineers help design mechanical components and develop the specific tools and machines needed to produce aircraft, missile, and space vehicle parts, or they may design jet and rocket engines. Electrical and electronics engineers work on the electrical systems that control the functioning of most aerospace products. Industrial engineers develop methods of producing complex products efficiently and solve logistical problems of manufacturing and transporting the sometimes large parts. Engineering technicians assist engineers, both in the research and development laboratory and on the manufacturing floor. They may help build prototypes of newly designed parts, run tests and experiments, and perform a variety of other technical tasks. One of the earliest users of computer-aided design, the aerospace industry continues to use the latest computer technology. Computer scientists,computer systems analysts, database administrators, computer software engineers, computer programmers, computer support specialists, and network and computer systems administrators are responsible for the design, testing, evaluation, and setup of computer systems that are used throughout the industry for design and manufacturing purposes.

Management, business, and financial occupations. This occupational group accounted for 16 percent of aerospace industry employment in 2008. Many advance to these jobs from professional occupations, as it is beneficial for managers in the aerospace industry to have a technical or engineering background when they supervise teams of engineers in activities such as testing and research and development. Industrial production managers oversee all workers and lower level managers in a factory. They also coordinate all activities related to production. In addition to technical and production managers, financial managers; purchasing managers, buyers, and purchasing agents; cost estimators; and accountants and auditors are needed to purchase parts and materials, negotiate with customers and subcontractors, and track costs.

Production occupations. Of all aerospace workers, 33 percent are employed in production occupations. Production workers in the aerospace industry perform specialized work due to the complexity of the products they work on. Most parts are made by machine tool operators, but complicated parts and parts that are needed in numbers too small to mass-produce are made by machinists. Machinists follow blueprints and specifications and are highly skilled with machine tools and metalworking. Tool and die makers are responsible for constructing precision tools and metal forms, called dies, which are used to shape metal. Increasingly, as individual components are designed electronically, these highly skilled workers must be able to read electronic blueprints and set up and operate computer-controlled machines. Aircraft structure, surfaces, rigging, and systems assemblers put together parts of airplanes, such as wings or landing gear, or install parts and equipment into the airplane itself. Assemblers usually specialize in one assembly task; hundreds of different assemblers may work at various times on producing a single aircraft. Those involved in assembling aircraft or systems must be skilled in reading and interpreting engineering specifications and instructions. Inspectors, testers, sorters, samplers, and weighers perform numerous quality-control and safety checks on aerospace parts throughout the production cycle. Their work is vital to ensure the safety of the aircraft.

Administrative support, service, and sales occupations. Workers in office and administrative support occupations help coordinate the flow of materials to the worksite, draw up orders for supplies, keep records, and help with all of the other paperwork associated with keeping a business functioning. Those in service occupations are employed mostly as guards and janitors and other cleaning and maintenance workers. As a result of the highly technical nature of the products produced by this industry, sales workers are mostly wholesale and manufacturing sales representatives, sales engineers, and sales worker supervisors.

Table 1. Employment of wage and salary workers in aerospace products and part manufacturing , 2008 and projected change, 2008-2018. (Employment in thousands)
Occupation Employment, 2008 Percent Change,
2008-18
Number Percent
All occupations 503.9 100.0 -0.3
Management, business, and financial occupations 81.0 16.1 0.2
  General and operations managers 4.6 0.9 -11.3
  Industrial production managers 4.4 0.9 -2.8
  Engineering managers 7.7 1.5 -2.8
  Purchasing agents, except wholesale, retail, and farm products 10.7 2.1 6.9
  Logisticians 6.1 1.2 6.9
  Management analysts 8.6 1.7 -2.8
Computer and mathematical science occupations 31.9 6.3 5.1
  Computer software engineers 21.0 4.2 8.4
Architecture and engineering occupations 110.4 21.9 2.7
  Engineers 89.5 17.8 3.8
Office and administrative support occupations 37.2 7.4 -6.2
  Production, planning, and expediting clerks 7.9 1.6 -2.8
  Shipping, receiving, and traffic clerks 5.8 1.2 -12.5
  Secretaries and administrative assistants 7.4 1.5 -5.2
Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations 43.8 8.7 -1.5
  Avionics technicians 6.7 1.3 -2.6
  Aircraft mechanics and service technicians 23.5 4.7 -2.8
  Industrial machinery installation, repair, and maintenance workers 6.9 1.4 4.5
Production occupations 168.7 33.5 -1.3
  First-line supervisors/managers of production and operating workers 10.8 2.1 -2.8
  Aircraft structure, surfaces, rigging, and systems assemblers 39.9 7.9 8.4
  Team assemblers 8.8 1.7 -0.7
  Computer-controlled machine tool operators, metal and plastic 8.0 1.6 -2.5
  Machine tool cutting setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 11.5 2.3 -15.3
  Machinists 19.8 3.9 -2.8
  Inspectors, testers, sorters, samplers, and weighers 18.1 3.6 -2.8
NOTE: Columns may not add to total due to omission of occupations with small employment.

Training and Advancement[About this section] [To Top]

The proportion of workers with education beyond high school is larger in the aerospace industry than the average for all industries. Because employers need well-informed, knowledgeable employees who can keep up with the rapid technological advancements in aerospace manufacturing, the industry provides substantial support for the education and training of its workers. Firms provide onsite, job-related training to upgrade the skills of technicians, production workers, and engineers. Classes teaching computer skills and blueprint reading are common. Some firms reimburse employees for educational expenses at colleges and universities, emphasizing 4-year degrees and postgraduate studies. In addition to training requirements, workers in defense-related aerospace companies often need a security clearance.

Professional and related occupations. The aerospace industry is on the leading edge of technology, constantly striving to create new products and improve existing ones. Many workers are employed in research and development in the aerospace products and parts manufacturing industry. A bachelor's degree in a specialized field, such as engineering, is required for most of these jobs; a master's or doctoral degree is preferred for some. For many technician occupations, however, a two-year program of technical training after high school is favored.

Production occupations. Production workers in the aerospace industry are highly skilled because of the specialized work that they must perform. While a high school diploma or equivalent is usually required, it is becoming increasingly common for new production workers to have postsecondary vocational training as well.

Local community colleges and technical schools in areas with a high concentration of aerospace manufacturing typically offer programs in aerospace production. These programs can last from a semester to two years and cover topics such as math and computer skills, blueprint reading, a basic overview of materials and methods, measurement and quality control, and safety. Many programs work closely with local manufacturers to ensure that they are providing the skills that companies look for in new workers.

Employees need continuing education in order to stay current with new developments in the field and to advance into more highly skilled positions. For example, machinists may take additional training to become numerical tool and process control programmers or tool and die makers. Inspectors usually are promoted from assembly, machine operation, and mechanical occupations.

Because of the reliance on computers and computer-operated equipment, classes in computer skills are common. With training, production workers may also be able to advance to supervisory or technician jobs.

To enter some of the more highly skilled production occupations, workers must go through a formal apprenticeship. Machinists and electricians complete apprenticeships that can last as long as four years. Apprenticeships usually include classroom instruction and shop training.

Entry-level positions for technicians usually require a degree from a technical school or junior college. Companies sometimes retrain technicians to upgrade their skills or to teach different specialties. They are taught traditional as well as new production technology skills, such as computer-aided design and manufacturing, and statistical process control methods.

Outlook[About this section] [To Top]

Employment is expected to remain stable over the next decade as increased output is met primarily through productivity improvements and the continued production of parts in foreign countries. Job prospects should be favorable for workers in professional occupations due to a large number of expected retirements.

Employment change. The aerospace product and parts manufacturing industry is expected to experience little or no change in wage and salary employment from 2008-18, compared with 11 percent growth projected for all industries combined. The introduction of several major new aircraft in both the civil and military segments of the industry should lead to a substantial increase in the number of aircraft produced over the projection period, but productivity improvements and the continued production of parts in foreign countries will enable this production to be completed without an increase in employment.

Recent volatility in fuel prices is causing world airlines to hasten the process of replacing older, less fuel efficient aircraft with newer models. This demand, combined with rapid growth in air travel in Asia and the Middle East, has created a favorable environment for airplane manufacturers. The civil aerospace industry operates in a world market, and the demand for air travel, and consequently for aircraft, is strongly affected by global economic conditions.

The military aircraft and missiles segment of the industry will continue to grow as concern for the Nation's security has increased the need for military aircraft and military aerospace equipment. In addition, the need to modernize Cold War-era equipment will stimulate demand in this sector of the industry. However, budget pressures may serve as a check on growth in spending on military aerospace equipment.

Job prospects. In addition to some growth in employment opportunities for workers in the industry, many job openings will arise from replacement needs, especially for aerospace engineers and other professional occupations. Many engineers entered the industry during the 1960s and 1970s as the space age captured the Nation’s attention; these workers are now nearing retirement. Among those in the aerospace manufacturing industry, professionals typically enjoy more job stability than do other workers. During slowdowns in production, companies prefer to keep technical teams intact to continue research and development activities in anticipation of new business. Production workers, on the other hand, are particularly vulnerable to layoffs during periods of weak demand for aircraft.

Job opportunities in the aerospace product and parts manufacturing industry are also influenced by the unique production cycles within the industry, which do not always follow general economic conditions. Job openings in the industry rise rapidly when major new aircraft or systems are in development and production. However, job openings become scarcer after the initial production run.

Earnings [About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

Industry earnings. Production workers in the aerospace industry earn higher pay than the average for all industries. Weekly earnings for production workers averaged $1,305 in aerospace product parts manufacturing in 2008, compared with $724 in all manufacturing and $608 in all private industry. Above-average earnings reflect, in part, the high levels of skill required by the industry due to the high quality standards of their products. The earnings may also reflect longer average hours worked each week in the industry. Nonproduction workers, such as engineering managers, engineers, and computer specialists, generally command higher pay because of their advanced education and training. Wages for selected occupations in aerospace product and parts manufacturing appear in table 2.

Table 2. Median hourly wages of the largest occupations in aerospace products and parts manufacturing, May 2008
Occupation Aerospace product and
parts manufacturing
All industries
Computer software engineers, systems software $44.41 $44.44
Engineers, all other 44.27 42.58
Mechanical engineers 39.01 36.02
Industrial engineers 36.79 35.49
Purchasing agents, except wholesale, retail, and farm products 30.87 25.93
First-line supervisors/managers of production and operating workers 30.27 24.25
Aircraft mechanics and service technicians 24.47 24.71
Inspectors, testers, sorters, samplers, and weighers 22.10 15.02
Aircraft structure, surfaces, rigging, and systems assemblers 21.57 21.22
Machinists 19.49 17.41

Benefits and union membership. Workers in the aerospace industry, particularly those working for large firms, receive good benefits, including health insurance, paid vacation and sick leave, and pension plans.

In 2008, 21 percent of all workers in the aerospace industry were union members or covered by union contracts, compared with about 14 percent of all workers throughout private industry. Some of the major aerospace unions include the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM); the United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW); and the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA).



*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Used by permission.

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