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Aerospace Manufacturer

Significant Points

* Skilled production, professional, and managerial jobs comprise the bulk of employment.

* Earnings are substantially higher, on average, than in most other manufacturing industries.

Nature of the Work

The aerospace industry comprises companies producing aircraft, guided missiles, space vehicles, aircraft engines, propulsion units, and related parts. Aircraft overhaul, rebuilding, and conversion also are included.

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. General aviation aircraft range from the small two-seaters designed for leisure use to corporate jets designed for business transport. Civil helicopters, which make up one of the smallest segments of civil aircraft, are commonly used by police departments, emergency medical services, and businesses such as oil and mining companies that need to transport people to remote worksites.

Aircraft engine manufacturers, not the aircraft manufacturers, produce the engines used in civil and military aircraft. These manufacturers design and build engines 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 increased 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.

In 2004, about 2,800 establishments made up the aerospace industry. In the aerospace parts industry, most establishments were subcontractors that manufacture parts and employ fewer than 100 workers. Nevertheless, 63 percent of the jobs in aerospace manufacturing were in large establishments that employed 1,000 or more workers (chart 1).

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.

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.

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 (CAD), which allows firms to design and test an entire aircraft, including the individual parts, by computer; the drawings of these parts can be sent electronically to subcontractors who use them to program their machinery. 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.

Working Conditions

The average aerospace products and parts production employee worked 42.6 hours a week in 2004, compared with 40.8 hours a week for all manufacturing workers and 33.7 hours a week for workers in all industries. Working conditions in aerospace manufacturing facilities vary. Many new plants, in contrast to older facilities, are spacious, well lit, and modern. 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 many production jobs.

The rate of work-related injury and illness in the aerospace products and parts industry was 4.7per 100 full-time workers in 2003. In comparison, cases of work-related injury and illness throughout the private sector averaged 5.0 per 100 workers.


Aerospace manufacturing provided 444,000 wage and salary jobs in 2004. The largest numbers of aerospace jobs were in Washington and California, although many also were located in Kansas, Texas, Connecticut, and Arizona.

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 elsewhere in the Career Guide. 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.


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.

Professionals, such as engineers and scientists, require a bachelor’s degree in a specialized field. For some jobs, particularly in research and development, a master’s or doctoral degree may be preferred.

Production workers may enter the aerospace industry with minimal skills. Mechanical aptitude and good hand-eye coordination usually are necessary. A high school diploma or equivalent is required, and some vocational training in electronics or mechanics also is favored.

Unskilled production workers typically start by being shown how to perform a simple assembly task. Through experience, on-the-job instruction provided by other workers, and brief formal training sessions, they expand their skills. Their pay increases as they advance into more highly skilled or responsible jobs. 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 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 4 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.

Other Qualifications


Job Outlook

Wage and salary employment in the aerospace product and parts manufacturing industry is expected to grow by 8 percent over the 2004-14 period, slower than the 14-percent growth projected for all industries combined. Employment in the aerospace industry has declined in recent years as a result of a drastic reduction in commercial transport aircraft orders, but a modest increase in orders is expected over the projection period. The decline in orders was caused by the reduction in air travel that resulted from the terrorist attacks on the United States and severe financial problems that many of the Nation’s airlines have experienced. However, an increase in air traffic and the improving financial health of the Nation’s airlines are beginning to reverse the trend.

The outlook for the military aircraft and missiles portion of the industry is better. Concern for the Nation’s security has increased the need for military aircraft and military aerospace equipment. Although new employment opportunities in the defense-related sector of the aerospace industry may not reach levels previously attained during the Cold War, employment in this sector is expected to rise.

Because of past reductions in defense expenditures and competition in the commercial aircraft sector, there have been and may continue to be mergers in the industry, resulting in layoffs. Even though the number of large firms performing final assembly of aircraft has been reduced, hundreds of smaller manufacturers and subcontractors will remain in this industry.

In addition to some growth in employment opportunities for professional workers in the industry, there should be job openings arising from replacement needs, especially for aerospace engineers. Many engineers who entered the industry in the 1960s are approaching 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 downturns in the economy, when aircraft orders decline.


Production workers in the aerospace industry earn higher pay than the average for all industries. Weekly earnings for production workers averaged $1,019 in aerospace product parts manufacturing in 2004, compared with $659 in all manufacturing and $529 in all private industry. Above-average earnings reflect, in part, the high levels of skill required by the industry and the need to motivate workers to concentrate on maintaining high quality standards in their work. Nonproduction workers, such as engineering managers, engineers, and computer specialists, generally command higher pay because of their advanced education and training. (See Table 2 for more details.)

In 2004, 17 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; the United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America; the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA); and the International Union of Allied Industrial Workers of America.

Related Occupations

The design and manufacture of the technologically sophisticated products of the aerospace industry require the input and skills of various workers. Skilled production, professional and related, and managerial jobs 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. The aerospace industry has a larger proportion of workers with education beyond high school than the average for all industries.

The aerospace industry is on the leading edge of technology, constantly striving to create new products and improve existing ones. The industry invests a great deal of time and money in research and development of aerospace products, and much of the work is performed by professional and related workers, who made up 34 percent of the aerospace workforce in 2004 (table 1). In addition, as mentioned in the previous section, many more aerospace-related professionals work in the scientific research and development services industry. A bachelor’s degree in a specialized field, such as engineering, is required for many of these jobs; a master’s or doctoral degree is preferred for a few. For many technician occupations, 2 years of technical training after high school are favored.

Professionals and technicians develop new designs and make improvements to existing designs. 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. Electrical and electronics, industrial, and mechanical 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. Engineering technicians assist engineers, both in the research and development laboratory and on the manufacturing floor. They may help build prototype versions of newly designed products, 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 and 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 accounted for 18 percent of industry employment in 2004. Many advance to these jobs from professional occupations. Many managers in the aerospace industry have a technical or engineering background and 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 negotiate with customers and subcontractors and to track costs.

Of all aerospace workers, 37 percent are employed in production; installation, maintenance, and repair; and transportation and material-moving occupations. Many of these jobs are not specific to aerospace and can be found in other manufacturing industries. Many production jobs are open to persons with only a high school education; however, special vocational training after high school is preferred for some of the more highly skilled jobs.

Aircraft structure, surfaces, rigging, and systems assemblers usually specialize in one assembly task; hundreds of different assemblers may work at various times on producing a single aircraft. Assemblers may put together parts of airplanes, such as wings or landing gear, or install parts and equipment into the airplane itself. Those involved in assembling aircraft or systems must be skilled in reading and interpreting engineering specifications and instructions.

Machinists make parts that are needed in numbers too small to mass-produce. 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.

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.

The remaining jobs in the industry are in office and administrative support, service, and sales occupations. Most of these jobs can be entered without education beyond high school. 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. Sales workers are mostly wholesale and manufacturing sales representatives and sales workers’ supervisors. (See Table 1 for the most recent data.)

Sources of Additional Information

For additional information about the aerospace manufacturing industry, write to:

Aerospace Industries Association of America, Communications Department, 1000 Wilson Boulevard, 17th Floor, Arlington, VA 22209. Internet:

American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Inc., Suite 500, 1801 Alexander Bell Dr., Reston, VA 20191-4344. Internet:

Federal Aviation Administration, 800 Independence Ave., SW., Room 810, Washington, DC 20591. Internet:

Information on the following occupations may be found in the 2004-05 edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook.

  • Aerospace engineers
  • Aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics and service technicians
  • Assemblers and fabricators
  • Computer programmers
  • Computer software engineers
  • Computer systems analysts, database administrators, and computer scientists
  • Electrical and electronics engineers, except computer
  • Engineering managers
  • Engineering technicians
  • Industrial engineers, including health and safety
  • Inspectors, testers, sorters, samplers, and weighers
  • Machine setters, operators, and tenders—metal and plastic
  • Machinists
  • Mechanical engineers

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Career Guide to Industries, 2006-07 Edition, Aerospace Product and Parts Manufacturing, on the Internet at (visited July 01, 2006).

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