For 70 years. Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works has stood as a testament to some of the finest aerospace engineering in the world.
Working in unconventional ways, hand-picked teams of brilliant engineers developed breakthrough technologies and legendary aircraft designs that changed aviation for ever: Starfighters, Blackbirds, Raptors, and now experimental hypersonic aircraft like the SR-72. It is also home to one of our most credible efforts towards practical fusion power.
Earning a job at the Skunk Works is a mark of excellence any engineer would be proud to have on their resume. We spoke to Kevin Walsh, Manager of Advanced Structures, about what they look for in new engineers.
EJ: What’s your role at the Skunk Works?
KW: I have two main areas of responsibility. First is to identify new technologies we can apply to any of our current future products, specifically advanced composites. We’re always looking at R&D that we can take to the next level. Second is talent acquisition. It’s my job to make sure we have the right people we need for all our different projects.
EJ: Do you hire many people straight out of college?
KW: Absolutely – we hire a lot of people!
[Skunk Works employs over 3000 people and currently has over 50 open engineering jobs. Ed.]
We target the universities because that’s where the next generation of skunks will come from. Most of the engineering education in the USA is good, so we don’t have particular schools we target. What attracts my eye is passion and enthusiasm for solving problems. Everyone has an interest, but we want those folks who can show why they want to do what they want to do.
EJ: How do you expect students to show that?
KW: Well, we do have a minimum GPA requirement, but that’s not as important as attitude. We look at everything they do. Senior projects, for example, are really important. We want an understanding of their thought processes in how they identified their project and solved the problems. Another important part of it is finding internships. We know that’s hard – this summer we had just eight interns. But that shows determination, and it shows how they can take book knowledge and apply it. And then there are the extra-curricular activities, such as the AIAA Design Build Fly competition or the Society of Automotive Engineers design competitions. The students who get involved in those are the ones we really like. We also love the ones who take on leadership roles in various contexts.
EJ: Are you hiring primarily for aerospace engineering jobs?
KW: Not at all. We have a need for almost every engineering discipline: structural analysis, systems engineering, hydraulics, aerodynamics, electronics, materials, software, literally everything. We always have to update avionics, and give our aircraft new capabilities, so we have a huge need for new software.
But we expect people to spend time finding where they fit. Let me tell you about how I started off.
I graduated from USC with a BSc in Aerospace, and was convinced I wanted to do aerodynamics. I got an interview with Skunk Works and I started here working in airframe design. We had a program to allow us to rotate around, and when I ended up in aerodynamics I didn’t actually like it, so I went back to airframe design.
We’re very good at letting people try different experiences. If they want to try and learn a different job, we try to accommodate it. Some of the best things I did was in those rotations. I will admit I didn’t always enjoy it, but as years have gone by, the ability to understand what different teams do, and why they need certain things, has helped me and helped them. Being able to speak multiple disciplines makes better engineers.
EJ: So what’s it like working there? How do people react when they find themselves at the Skunk Works for the first time?
KW: Well, the very first week isn’t exactly glamorous. It’s a lot of compliance training and paperwork. Then it gets fun.
You get exposed to some incredible technology and programs. You get to see some of the things you’ve read about and maybe heard whispers about. It can be overpowering. The thing we hear over and over again is, “Wow – I didn’t know that was real!”
What we do to help people get up to speed quickly is to pair up college hires with more experienced people. It depends on the person, obviously, but it can be as little six months before they’re working on their own projects.
The buzz is incredible. My favorite thing was working on the X-35 program, which was the experimental demonstrator for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. I was part of a great bunch of people trying to do something that had never been done before. When I saw that thing fly for the first time… well, any time you get to see something you’ve worked on turn into reality, that’s the a-ha moment. Even if you’ve only worked on a little bit of it, when it all comes together, that’s why you do what you do. That’s what makes it all worth it.
EJ: So do you have any final advice for anyone aiming for engineering jobs at the Skunk Works?
KW: Enthusiasm, that’s what we’re looking for. We want engineers who have the passion of working with people, who are willing to help solve problems, and share their success with others.
All images credit Lockheed Martin.