When Wanda Austin and Clay Jones talk about the organizations they lead, they are focused on investing in innovation.

Austin, at the helm of The Aerospace Corp., has a simple formula. “We are about reducing the cost of space systems, not just lighter-weight materials or how to squeeze every inch of space out of every payload bay, but also how we integrate the data we collect and deliver it to our users,” she explains.

Jones's perspective at Rockwell Collins is similar. He says the future is about size, weight and power. “Electronics lends itself to this,” he notes. “Less fuel, less material, less weight, extending power in terms of battery life and throughput. That's our mantra.”

This clarity of vision is what the two organizations have in common and what has landed them at the top of the rankings in Aviation Week's 2012 Workforce Study category of Where A&D Professionals Want To Work.

Based on data gathered for the Workforce Study, the rankings represent an index across three areas: technological challenge, professional development/learning, and respect for/valuing the individual. These are the areas employees in the industry indicate are most important to them as they make career decisions. Readers, AviationWeek.com visitors and respondents to our Young Professionals Survey rank “ability to contribute ideas and solutions” as the No. 1 return on their work effort.

For Austin, the link between the three areas is basic business and resonates with the federally funded research center's values: dedication to mission success; technical excellence; commitment to our people; objectivity; and integrity. The objectivity value—basing decisions and conversations on fact rather than emotion or hype—links directly to technical excellence, ongoing learning and respect. Regardless of rank or degree, the measure of a person at Aerospace Corp. is the value and content he/she adds to a conversation.

Similarly, Austin relates professional development to the business. Employees must stay aligned with the customer, remain in sync with the customers' toughest problems and assure that “what we do is not redundant.” To ensure its staff can offer this value to the customer, Aerospace Corp. must provide opportunities to learn so that each worker is able to “recast their knowledge and experience to where the customer is going,” Austin says.

Rockwell Collins also focuses on the individual as it looks at the company's technical capability. To enable employees to make the most of every tool, Rockwell Collins University offers classroom and computer-based training. “Second, we make sure the engineering tools we have are new and appropriate,” Jones says. “That's tough in our industry because the products we support may have 10, 20 years on wing and are based on pretty old toolsets. But we are always adding that next level, a blend of new as we retain the old.” The company uses a centralized repository to manage the collection and distribution of resources.

Jones is reticent to stress how much time each employee spends in training. The company places special emphasis on developing leaders at every level of the organization because “people learn best from other people.” Rockwell Collins wants to ensure that mentors, supervisors and leaders meet the expectation.

Discussing economic duress or potential defense budget cuts due to the U.S. legislative process of sequestration, Jones says, “we try to put this into context and be open. Our history as a company has shown that these cycles do happen and we have been able to perform well when the recovery has come.”

Using an aggressive performance evaluation process for employees, he believes his organization has a good handle on talent and skills. “Where we can and where skill sets and geography match, we are moving people from government to the commercial side,” he says. 'We constructed our business model around being able to do this.”

Jones believes Rockwell Collins's aggregate level of investment will continue at 17-20% of sales, just as it has for the past 15 years. “I really see no reasonable alternative, if you want to stay in business and serve customers,” he says. “This is a high-investment business; R&D is our lifeblood. We've been through six business cycles [up and down] since we spun out in 2001, and through all those cycles we have maintained this level.”

Jones predicts three basic investment changes. First, the company will put some commercial R&D dollars into proprietary or discretionary government investment, a requirement for the second change, international government sales. Third, Rockwell Collins will invest in improved products that make more efficient use of airspace, improve safety or life-cycle agility and support.

Austin's Aerospace Corp. faces the dilemma of being 100% defense, all the time. Austin focuses on working in ways that are less onerous, including partnering with for-profit groups to virtually exchange information and access databases, improve information technology structure and reduce the time to accomplish work through collaboration.

She is particularly mindful of the need to maintain hiring gains made with young professionals. Her organization, which employs many people with doctorates, has worked tirelessly in the past five years to bring in new college graduates. “We have to engage this new generation into our thinking,” she says. “Things we thought we would never allow—YouTube, Facebook, other social media—we now use to make this a comfortable environment that allows them to bring their perspective to bear. These [technologies] are part of their DNA; to us, it is a strap-on and we have to think about how we might use the technology.”

Austin has a clear understanding of the risks she and other defense-side employers face. “I met with a group of recent hires yesterday,” she said in mid-July. “Their first question was about sequestration. I told them that what we are doing now is helping our customers understand the value we, Aerospace Corp., bring.

“They need to be able to talk this message themselves, and why they chose this field. I remind them about exploration, about discovering new capabilities and about the fabulous things we do. Space is part of daily life, like turning the lights on. We have to keep that.”

Also among the top companies is relatively tiny Acutec Precision Machining, which faces the challenge of hiring more staff in order to grow. Acutec specializes in milling, turning and non-destructive testing and it aims to capitalize on the current civil aviation run partly through its in-house machinist training program. New employees are matched up with a senior machinist to learn the trade. After 60 days on probation, the new hire is assessed by Acutec's leaders—including the senior machinist—to determine if he/she has what it takes to stay on board.

Acutec funds 85% of this in-house training; the state of Pennsylvania covers the other 15% for employees rebounding from unemployment or welfare. However, Patrick Faller, Acutec's human resources leader, says he is seeing more young people lately looking for a career path that allows them to use their technology know-how, while putting their hands on the product and avoiding the cost of higher education.

“We have to be very competitive to keep people once we've trained them,” Faller says. “Machinists and trade craftspeople are heavily sought by companies larger than ours.”

To compete, Acutec complements the training package with a 100%-company paid health care plan. “We are in a rural location where the cost of a health-care premium can easily equal a house mortgage,” Faller says.

It is a heavy cost for a company of less than 400 people to handle. But Acutec's owner, Rob Smith, believes it is the right thing to do: if Acutec is able to produce the first article on a line with no problems, it is worth the cost. And first-item quality does happen at Acutec.

“We also say that someone working for Acutec is a 'true' machinist,” he adds. “They download a design but can edit it during set up so they are 'crafting' each part. That is a real benefit to most people in this work. They have the responsibility and ability to do what is needed.”

Where A&D Professionals Want to Work
Technological Challenge Respect for the Individual Learning/Professional Development
1. Aerospace Corp. 1. Aerospace Corp. 1. Aerospace Corp.
2. Rockwell Collins 2. Rockwell Collins 2. Hamilton Sundstrand
3. (tie) Orbital Sciences Corp. and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems 3. Hamilton Sundstrand 3. (tie) Acutec Precision Machining, Pratt & Whitney and Therm
Source: Aviation Week 2012 Workforce Study