In our Industry Focus series, we look at fast growing industries in specific areas of the country and help you understand the career opportunities. This week, we look at the Scottish satellite industry.
The satellite industry in Scotland, says the data, is big business. From 2015 – 2017, Glasgow and its surrounds built more satellites than any other European city, and with no fewer than three separate companies in the area concentrating on the task – as well as Sutherland in the north of Scotland being cited as the new site for the UK’s spaceport – it’s no wonder that the nation needs more than a few capable engineers. Even the government’s Brexit report on the space industry recognises the far-reaching effects of our satellites, from food and water to emergency services and communication (although it may relieve you to hear that our Trident nuclear missiles have no need for US-controlled GPS satellites in order to operate, using instead a sighting calculation system which can navigate by the stars).
So what exactly do these satellite companies do? Clyde Space, one of the Glasgow organisations mentioned above, specialises in small satellites, including nano-satellites. These are tiny (anything under 10 kilograms) and can be launched for a variety of things, such as fast imaging collection in disaster response situations; low-cost space exploration; and testing ahead of larger satellites. Spire, headquartered in San Francisco but with a large Glasgow office, focuses on satellite data collection for maritime and weather purposes. Alba Orbital, also based in Glasgow, are keen to make engineers of everyone, and offer an educational PocketQube pico-satellite (even smaller than a nano-satellite) and a variety of mission packages to put it into space. There are also satellite engineers who are of service to the country in a more explicit way, working with the RAF.
In order to get a job with any of these companies, you do need a basic level of knowledge – it’s not something you can just jump into and learn on the job, although Alba offer a summer internship, which you can apply for through this page. They each have a slightly different focus, unsurprisingly given their individual specialisms.
For data-focused roles, the emphasis is placed on digital skills: scripting and coding abilities in Python, C++, SQL, as well as system testing. Programming languages are generally something you can learn online by yourself, if you have the inclination and discipline; websites like Alison, Udemy and Codecademy can help you find the right fit for you. For a role featuring physical mechanics or ‘traditional’ engineering, it’s harder to teach yourself the skills required – and even more so for those specialist roles such as radio communications and electrical engineering. But there are many formal education opportunities out there which are geared for exactly these careers. Browse the UCAS website for university courses in aerospace engineering, space technology or similar (using a simple search term like ‘space’ can sometimes garner interesting results). Some courses offer a degree with a ‘year in industry’, meaning you can take a sandwich year to go and work with an organisation that interests you – a key way to gain both experience and contacts before you’ve even finished your degree. The Open University also offers a degree in Engineering, which is an option for those who can’t commit to full-time undergraduate study.
Does work experience match up to a degree, for those with less education? All signs point to no; this is one career you have to be formally educated for. “Getting a candidate in who is a ‘graduate’ normally means they have limited hands-on experience but understand the technical stack we work with from their studies,” says Sarah Preston of Spire. “This way Spire can help shape and mold the individual’s understanding of their specific area and systems/programming languages into the kind of output we expect from our Engineers.” When a company specialises in one very specific part of one industry, it’s no surprise that they need a level of precision and rigour, but Spire are keen to ensure their employees’ soft skills and progression are looked after as well as their technical focus – they use two types of team leader, ‘captains’ who are in charge of technical project output, and ‘coaches’ who zone in on each employee’s personal potential. “Statistically speaking, performance reviews are one of the most disliked parts of any job,” Preston notes. “By replacing them with coaching sessions, we aim to provide a more growth-oriented system for managing performance.” This idea comes from CEO Peter Platzer, who is also a career coach at Harvard Business School, and has a reputation as the boss ‘who’s never fired anyone’.
If you’re keen to be involved with the satellite industry, but don’t want to be an engineer, all of the above-mentioned companies have strong sales, business relations and customer service departments as well. In a burgeoning industry with innovative companies, a foot in the door at this stage could lead to, well, anywhere, really.
A key tip to getting started in heavily technical industries is to learn the terminology, which can be overwhelming when you’re new to it. Spend some time looking at job ads and reading news items, make a list for yourself of all the words, software or hardware names, and skills that you haven’t heard of before, and research them. That way, when you begin to learn properly, you’ll already have a bit of context for what you’re doing. If you sign up to Stay Nimble, we can help you through the process of beginning an entirely new career with regular hints and tips like this, and soon you’ll be aiming for the stars.
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Katherine is a qualified careers advisor and a member of the Career Development Institute. She has just begun a PhD programme to research meta-skill development in the workplace, and is a fiction editor and publisher in her spare time. You can find her on Twitter at @katobell.