Magazine says Cal Poly among the best at preparing students for aerospace jobs

Cal Poly is the second-best university in the nation at preparing students for aerospace jobs, according to a survey by a popular aviation magazine.

The Aviation Week and Space Technology 2009 Workforce Study gathered feedback from 43 members of the Aerospace Industries Association in a report that ranked Cal Poly second along with Penn State University and Purdue University.

The aerospace companies ranked their top five colleges in the country based on reputation, alumni job performance and proximity of the college’s campus to the recruiting organization. Virginia Tech was the survey’s only top-ranked university.

Cal Poly’s engineering program has about 5,000 students, including about 560 aerospace engineering majors.

The survey examined hires of alumni in a variety of majors — including aerospace, electrical, computer and mechanical engineering.

In recent years, Cal Poly graduates have been hired at aerospace companies such as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory; each has offices in California.

Practical, extracurricular projects that students undertake at Cal Poly make graduates particularly attractive to employers, said Rob McDonald, a Cal Poly aerospace engineering professor.

Ryan Nugent, a 24-year-old Cal Poly aerospace engineering graduate student, said he spends about 20 to 35 hours a week on designing a deployer for a satellite.

The work is part of Cal Poly’s extracurricular, 10-year-old CubeSat program — which involves launching miniature satellites into outer space from locations around the world through partnerships with other universities and private industry.

“I think it will help a lot when it comes to applying for a job,” Nugent said. “I think it’s really important to get involved with projects outside of class for finding jobs.”

Another ongoing project at Cal Poly is the development of technology to install in a $200,000, remote-controlled helicopter donated to the university last year by Northrop Grumman.

The chopper functions similarly to military aircraft that conduct surveillance and warfare without a human pilot.

McDonald said that Cal Poly has been in contact with the county Sheriff’s Department about using the aircraft for tasks such as searching for lost hikers. No missions have been undertaken yet.

The chopper uses computer programming as well as imaging to conduct surveillance of landscapes.

Another ongoing project in an aviation class of more than 40 undergraduates involves creating plans for a 175-passenger airplane that uses less fuel and offers better aerodynamics than current planes on the market.

“Companies want aircraft that are more environmentally conscious and use less fuel, which is a big cost these days,” said Aaron Ells, a 22-year-old aerospace engineering major.

Students are getting feedback from professional engineers in the aircraft industry as part of the project.

The job marketMcDonald said the job market has slowed during the recession, but some sectors remain strong, such as the commercial satellite industry.

Aviation Week’s survey noted a significant reduction in projected hiring in several areas, however, including aerospace engineers.

Among the 43 companies that responded, jobs available will be reduced to 19,951 next year from 21,007 this year, according to projections.

The aerospace companies anticipate hiring 192 aerospace engineers next year compared with 953 this year — an 80 percent dip.

Mechanical engineering positions are expected to be down to 535 next year from 1,451, and computer software positions, to drop to 1,722 from 2,746.

McDonald said that many aerospace companies are based in or have operations in California, and companies prefer to hire natives of the state.

Recruits from elsewhere in the United States often will move after a few years, citing high costs of living.

“People from California tend to want to stay,” McDonald said. “Companies want to encourage retention, and because of that they’ll want Cal Poly grads.”