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Forget Silicon Valley

Working for a defense contractor is surprisingly cool

This fisheye-lens shot shows Raytheon's Immersive Design Center, where engineers can explore their designs before they're even built.

When Alfonso Lopez started studying computer science at the University of Texas at Dallas, he figured he'd wind up working for one of big consumer tech companies. Someplace that leaks its new designs on social media and has fans camping out every time they release a product.

But Lopez's plans changed his senior year, when he took on a class project on the detection of malware in computer systems. That project, sponsored by the aerospace and defense contractor Raytheon, exposed him to the company's work in cybersecurity – and it led him to the engineering job he has held for the past three years.

"It's fun. The work we do is exciting," Lopez said. "The growth has been positive. The opportunities have been abundant. There's a lot of potential in the company, and I've experienced it firsthand."

Aerospace and defense companies aren't obvious choices for tech professionals to launch their careers. Of the 50,000 people the industry hired in 2015, only 13 percent were new college graduates, according to a study of the workforce by Aviation Week magazine. But those who do end up in aerospace and defense often find they like it. The industry's rate of voluntary attrition is "a staggeringly low" 4.3 percent, the study said.

One of the reasons: people in the industry believe in what they do, said Dan Stohr, a spokesman for the Aerospace Industries Association, a trade group. 

"This is noble work," he said. "The people who are in charge of keeping the nation and our skies safe are pointing to us with real gratitude for the work that we do."

And there are other benefits as well. Raytheon.com asked several employees who were either hired straight out of college or early in their careers why they like their jobs. Here's what they said:

You're Doing work that matters

Defense companies are technology companies – but with missions bigger than creating the next hot gadget for the holidays.

They make radars, sensors, missile interceptors, precision munitions, data-analysis tools and command-and-control systems for the United States government and allied militaries. Many employees are military veterans – they make up 17 percent of the workforce at Raytheon, for example, and the company was recently named to Monster and Military.com's list of best workplaces for veterans. Many other employees have family connections to the armed services. But even those with no military affiliation find satisfaction in their work.

"It's really nice that we can do something for the soldiers out in the field. What we make can help them do their job properly and come home safe," said Hannah Leu, a process engineer who oversees the manufacturing of parts for sensor systems.

Leu previously worked at a consulting firm and a pharmaceutical company.

"At my old companies, we didn't really have a mission the way Raytheon does – how it's used out in the field and saves lives," she said. "We just kept on working."

The industry also develops technology for civilian government agencies such as NASA and NOAA. It also produces cybersecurity, protecting everything from intellectual property to personal data.

“You’re supporting your country. You feel like you’re doing your duty,” Lopez said.

a great track record in tech

Commercial companies get much of the credit for the innovations that have changed daily life. But many of those technologies came directly from aerospace and defense, Stohr said.

"The Internet was a DARPA project. GPS. The cell phone. The miniaturization of the technology that makes your cell phone possible came out of the space program," he said. "There's a definite kind of sense that Silicon Valley is the source of innovation. It's not just them. It's us too."

As for the future, he pointed to the industry's innovations in unmanned flight and space exploration.

"We're gearing toward sending a human being to Mars," Stohr said. "That's a huge opportunity for someone who's young and getting into the industry to work on something that's not just really, really cool but is going to last a lifetime."

YOU GET TO have a life

You won't find bar carts in the offices of most defense companies on Friday afternoons. But many offer something better: flexibility.

Unlike Silicon Valley startups, which often work under constant pressure to get products to market, defense companies work on government contracts with fixed timetables and payments at certain stages of development. This allows them to better manage employee schedules.

At Raytheon, many employees work what's known as a 9/80 schedule, meaning they put in their time and take every other Friday off. Others work a more standard schedule but can arrange to shift their time around when they need. Leu, for example, sometimes works late during the week and then clocks out early on Friday to visit her family a few hours away.

"All I have to do is communicate with my boss," she said. "I was like, 'cool, this is awesome.'" 

Leu's job requires her to work on-site, but many other employees work from home, either part-time or full-time. 

you have Fascinating coworkers

Coming into the office has benefits – like working alongside people who have done incredible things. Aerospace and defense companies are packed with fascinating characters: astronauts, quantum physicists, former Hollywood animators, admirals, even fighter pilots who trained at TOPGUN. Also, a lot of “Star Wars” fans.

In a photo taken during his time with NASA, Robert Curbeam works with a solar array wing on the Internaional Space Station. Curbeam, who now works for Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems, is among thousands of industry employees with broad and fascinating backgrounds.

Wage gap? Not here

Nationwide, women make about 20 percent less than men do, according to the United States Department of Labor. But the U.S. government takes steps to ensure equal pay at federal contractors. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance regularly conducts pay audits, and Raytheon routinely runs internal analyses of its own to find and fix disparities. 

Equal pay isn't just right – it's also smart. Fostering diversity makes for better technology.

“It’s a very diverse company,” said Bethany Hostetler, who took a finance job with Raytheon after graduating from Indiana University. “Being an innovative company, that brings in a lot of different ideas.”

YOU CAN Get ahead

The best-known tech companies are flooded with resumes. That means you may spend years fighting the pack to get beyond an entry-level job.

But at defense companies – especially those with less name recognition – the opportunities for promotions and cool assignments are often much greater.

“I’m now a team lead for my program. It’s usually a lot harder to level your way up,” Lopez said. “A lot of younger engineering professionals are still entry-level developers. They’re doing the coding – they’re not managing or designing the solution. ... The progression, at least for me, has been very fast here.”

This document does not contain Technical Data or Technology controlled under either the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations or the U.S. Export Administration Regulations. E16-HYXR

Published: 10/07/2016

Last Updated: 01/25/2017

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