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Testing: the thin end of the wedge for UK Aerospace

01 April 2012

Software testing is seen as being somehow at the lower end of avionics engineering, claims Brian Luff, with much of it now moving offshore - particularly to the developing economies where the skills are readily and inexpensively to hand. But what threat does this pose to our own home-grown skills base, he asks.

Brian Luff
Brian Luff

The UK has an enviable record in advanced engineering skills, high-tech products and world-leading manufacturing capability. The aerospace industry is one of the foundation stones upon which our current, albeit declining, prosperity is built.

Almost three thousand aerospace companies, employing (directly or indirectly) a third of a million people make our aerospace industry still the second largest in the world, lagging only the USA. At a time when the UK is struggling with huge indebtedness it is worth remembering that the aerospace industry is still one of the country’s largest export industries (£14bn in 2008).

We all know things change. Supply expands to meet demand, prices fall, markets saturate. Geo-political pressures such as emerging markets, and the communications that facilitate globalisation, act seismically to produce long term and largely irreversible shifts affecting whole industries.  The effects of some of these factors are all too plain. Some of the greatest aircraft manufacturers were British but most have now unfortunately gone, or been absorbed by foreign ownership.

Instead of aircraft manufacturers, we now have a few divisions of the likes of Airbus and Bombardier making sub-systems such as wings and undercarriages. These are supplemented by the smaller companies in their supply chains, which are horribly vulnerable should Airbus, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and even (the largely US-owned) BAE decide to do more business away from these shores.

More support for home-grown businesses
Surely it’s a no brainer that the UK government should be acting to help sustain and even grow our aerospace business? What is required is far-sighted policy-making that looks beyond the next general election.  But what is actually happening? UK aerospace organisations are being actively encouraged to shift jobs to Brazil, India or China. It’s an attractive proposition for these countries. They get immediate capital injections and boosts to their employment, but the benefits are far longer term.

Quite wrong, in my view, software testing is seen as being somehow at the lower end of avionics engineering. Either way, hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of software testing has given India a base of software engineers with avionics experience. This ‘up-skilling’ of its workforce enables Indian companies now to challenge ever more strongly one of our main industries. The threat is obvious, and yet it’s being ignored by politicians and industry leaders who won’t look beyond their own personal end-games.

Tackling the graduate skills dilemma
For graduates joining the software industry, testing has often been a typical entry point. But now 17 per cent of UK computer science graduates are currently still unemployed six months after graduating. That’s one in six promising new engineers without a job!

The aerospace giants can hardly be blamed for outsourcing their engineering projects to lower cost suppliers abroad - £10 per hour for an advanced avionics engineer is hard to ignore.

Surely though, the answer cannot be to simply stave off short term problems by creating worse ones in the medium term? The solution must be to support British industry, and to support it directly in those areas where it still has a lead over most of the rest of the world. Gradually pushing high end skills out to India will simply give away our position as a world leader. What high-end skills and innovation will there be in ten years’ time unless we continue to grow and invest in our own avionics industry?

Protectionism as such is counter-productive, but there is a case for stricter export licensing of advanced technology (following the lead of the US).  US companies are sometimes difficult to deal with, but their model sustains economic wellbeing and protects the standard of living of generations to come.

It is imperative that the Government, together with all those in positions of influence in the aerospace industry, encourages fresh thinking and innovation – that is how we have succeeded. For this we need a steady influx of bright and motivated engineering graduates. Let’s not give away the jobs upon which many would cut their teeth.

We need to guarantee the long term prosperity of the UK aerospace industry as well as, but not instead of, supporting growth and expansion abroad.

Brian Luff is chairman, Critical Software Technologies

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