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Bell Helicopter CEO: Aerospace Firms Losing the Battle with Apple and Google for Top Engineers

Oct. 11, 2012
In the never-ending quest to attract top engineering talent, Bell Helicopter CEO John Garrison is fed up with the tech titans gobbling up "the best and the brightest" young minds when there are plenty of exciting opportunities in the world of aviation and aerospace.

You might not consider Apple (IW 500/9) and Google to be competitors of a 75-year-old vertical-lift-aircraft manufacturer, but Bell Helicopter CEO John Garrison does.

In the never-ending quest to attract top engineering talent, Garrison is fed up with the tech titans gobbling up "the best and the brightest" young minds when there are plenty of exciting opportunities in the world of aviation and aerospace.

"They make gadgets," Garrison said of Apple and Google, during a keynote at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's third-annual Aviation and Aerospace Industry Manufacturing Summit in Fort Worth, Texas.

"They make gadgets. We make these incredible machines that do great things."

The outspoken executive, who joined Fort Worth-based Bell Helicopter in February 2002, used adjectives like "fascinating," "exciting," "cool" and "complex" to describe his industry, declaring that "I've never experienced anything like it in my professional career."

Yet, too often a talented young engineer "goes to work for Google and develops a new algorithm to figure out how to go on the Internet and get trivia faster than anything else."

"Why the heck do we allow the best and brightest to go work for Google and Apple?" Garrison challenged the audience. "Let's go recruit them. Let's engage them, early and often, and [inspire] them with these remarkable technological challenges so we can be successful in our industry."

Bell's Talent Pipeline

While Apple and Google might have the upper hand over many old-line manufacturers in the scrum for skilled engineers, Garrison said Bell is making great strides in its recruitment and talent-development efforts.

The company's "talent pipeline starts with a very active intern program."

"We had 145 interns this year just in the Fort Worth area, from 52 schools all over the country, and actually a few international schools," Garrison noted.

Bell recruits from aviation and aeronautical engineering schools and tries to get students into internship programs early in their academic tenures.

"I want interns in their sophomore year," Garrison said.

Bell takes a different tack to find skilled manufacturing workers.

At its assembly facility in Amarillo, Texas, where Bell makes the V-22 Osprey for the U.S. Marine Corps (and soon will produce the new 525 Relentless super-medium-class helicopter), Bell has partnered with Amarillo College to develop a certificate program in aerospace manufacturing.

The two-semester program, according to the college, "prepares and qualifies graduates to manufacture mechanical and electrical components" and subassemblies for the Bell/Boeing V-22 Osprey "and most other modern aircraft."

Coursework includes aircraft composites; aircraft electrical and electronic systems; blueprint reading; statistical process control; environmental, safety and health; and "Shop Practices -- Aerospace Manufacturing and Technical Algebra and Trigonometry."

The certificate guarantees graduates an interview with Bell Helicopter, although it doesn't guarantee them a job, Garrison noted.

"The coursework is a combination of what we need specific for our manufacturing operations in Amarillo, coupled with the [curriculum of the] school," Garrison said. "Then you get a product that's incredible. [Graduates are] incredibly industrious, and they have that continuous-improvement mindset."

In its effort to find and develop skilled manufacturing workers, Bell also is "aggressively recruiting veterans."

"We're at over 40% veterans up in Amarillo," Garrison added.

Bell, a subsidiary of Textron Inc. (IW 500/100), encourages its existing workforce to upgrade its skills as well. Nearly half of Bell's 10,500 workers are taking advantage of the firm's tuition-reimbursement program, according to Garrison.

"We're big believers in training and educating -- lean/Six Sigma processes, green belts, black belts, DuPont safety training, college-reimbursement program," Garrison explained. "That's not just for young people. What about somebody who's mid-career who's been doing something for 25 years, and they want to go back and get a master's degree in electrical engineering or an IT-related field?"

" ... So we will promote from within, off our shop floor -- especially people who are willing to invest in themselves -- and we'll move them to all elements within our organization."

And yes, Bell has taken a page from hip high-tech firms such as Google and Apple.

Garrison said the company benchmarked the tech titans to try to understand why Bell "hasn't been winning too many of those career decisions" made by aspiring engineers.

Among the outcomes of that benchmarking, Bell in late 2011 unveiled plans to upgrade and expand its Fort Worth headquarters.

Those plans included modernizing workspaces and upgrading them with new equipment and technology; building a new employee center that includes meeting areas with wireless Internet access; and consolidating administrative and engineering sites in the Dallas/Fort Worth area into Bell's main campus to encourage collaboration.

Winning with Manufacturing in the US

Securing high-caliber talent, though, is just one of the keys to the industry's competitiveness, Garrison said.

In manufacturing, U.S. aviation and aerospace firms need to embrace agile production systems and continuous-improvement principles, Garrison asserted, while striving to create cultures in which workers are continually engaged.

"We have some staid folks who need to move forward and understand just how competitive the world is," Garrison said.

How competitive is the world? Garrison said he recently visited a crankshaft manufacturer in India and discovered that the company employed some 4,000 degreed engineers -- at a starting salary of $400 a month.

"They were process owners," Garrison said. "They weren't inspectors. They managed processes and kept processes under control.

"Now that's a challenge."

Bell can hire and train three Mexican workers for the cost of one health-insurance policy for an hourly worker in Fort Worth, Garrison added.

"Can we win here? We absolutely can," Garrison said. "But we need a workforce that's engaged, that's trained, that understands statistical analysis. So the math, science, engineering skills are not just for the engineering community; they also need to translate to the shop floor.

"And our engineers need to listen to the folks who have to do this for eight hours, 10 hours a day, who may not have the formal fancy degrees, but they have incredible knowledge, incredible common sense and experience. Marrying those two as we go forward is something we'll work hard on."

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