From the birth of aviation to the space age and beyond, the aerospace industry has transformed transportation, commerce and communication. Countless engineers have worked hard to literally give flight to the technologies that drive the modern world. But what does the job really entail? What is the average day for an aerospace engineer? We spoke with a veteran of the industry to learn what their work is really like.
Elizabeth Bierman is a senior project engineer at Honeywell Aerospace where she specialises in avionics and is the president of the Society of Women Engineers. She works with a wide variety of bright minds to create the technologies that guide aircraft to their destinations, is a mother of two, and also speaks on behalf of the Society of Women Engineers to promote diversity in the workplace. We asked Elizabeth how she ended up on her current career path, what her day typically entails, and more.
How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?
I got an astronaut lunch box in the 4th grade (this was fall 1985), and a few months later the Challenger space shuttle tragedy occurred. Instead of being discouraged, it sparked my interest to learn about those astronauts. I found out that three of them were aerospace engineers so I decided that is what I wanted to be too. I ended up going to Iowa State University and majoring in Aerospace Engineering! My first year was difficult. Engineering classes were a lot harder than high school and what I expected. I joined the Society of Women Engineers and this gave me a community of support to get through the challenges. Once I got into my core Aerospace Engineering classes things got better, or I just enjoyed the classes more. After my sophomore year of college, I got a co-op position with Rockwell Collins and this really solidified my love for aerospace and engineering. It was fascinating to start working on aeroplanes.
Did you need any licences or certifications?
I do not have any licences as an engineer. I am a certified Program Management Professional (PMP).
What sorts of things do you do beyond what the average person might expect? What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?
I actually spend the majority of my time thinking of ways to do things better. Whether it’s a navigation system going on an aeroplane or how to make a project come in on budget and on time, I work to continuously improve how we work. As a customer support engineer, I have been able to travel to the job site (airport hangars) and help our customers install the navigation system into the aircraft. I also have travelled around the world to work with our airline customers to talk with them about how they can use our products better.
What misconceptions do people often have about your job?
That I sit behind a computer all day and don’t talk to people. That engineers are introverts and just want to be left alone. Young girls and boys are told in school that you have to be smart at maths and science to be an engineer. I disagree. If you like maths, science and engineering and are willing to work hard then you can get through it.
What are your average work hours?
I have a lot of flexibility (I have two young daughters at home). I usually work from home on Monday and Friday and then go into the office from 7:30-3:30 on the other days. I do check email every night after the girls are in bed. Some weeks are 40 hours and others may be a little more. That is where the flexibility is nice. Sometimes I am on a call with India at 8PM at night or with Europe at 6AM, but then I am able to take some downtime in the middle of the day.
What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?
Be available when you can. It’s easy for me to answer an email at 8PM at night so I can focus on the harder items first thing the next morning.
What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession? What do they do instead?
Great question, I am focused on avionics — the instruments in the cockpit that help the planes navigate and manage the flight. What sets me apart from my peers is that I’m always looking for new technology we can leverage and communications trends we can take part in, such as lowering the cost and weight of the navigation system used on the new Boeing 787, while added additional functionality of faster align time (using GPS). Other aerospace engineers might work on engines or space systems. But all of us are working to solve problems.
What’s the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?
Engineers always have great ideas to make things better, but if a customer isn’t willing to pay for it or see the value, then we can’t do it.
Do you have any advice for people who need to enlist your services?
Be clear about the problem you need solved.
What’s an average starting salary in your line of work?
Average starting salaries are around $US60K per year.
How do you move up in your field?
I have two Masters degrees that have allowed me to build my skill set to move into higher levels of engineering and program management — and my employers helped pay for these degrees. I have also stayed involved with the Society of Women Engineers since college and this organisation has provided me with professional development throughout my career with skills such as conflict resolution, financial management, leading without authority, and more. I have gained these skills with leadership positions with SWE and then used them in my professional job. I am currently serving as SWE President.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
If you are passionate about something and want to make a difference, I promise there is a way to do that with engineering. Engineers solve problems, period. They think of new ideas and bring them to fruition. For those aspiring to be engineers, build a community of support. I have made amazing friends through SWE that are my network and support through the ups and downs of my personal and professional life. I am successful because of this network.
Career Spotlight is an interview series on Lifehacker that focuses on regular people and the jobs you might not hear much about — from doctors to plumbers to aerospace engineers and everything in between.