Bell Helicopter is growing its own. The Textron subsidiary is using its innovative “boot camp” for college engineering majors to keep its talent pipeline full and to promote aerospace careers.
Last year Bell CEO John Garrison challenged the aviation industry to arrest the exodus of its best engineering talent to the likes of Google and Apple. Since 2008, Bell has been doing its part in this effort by conducting an “engineering boot camp” for selected college sophomores and juniors during their spring breaks. Students are given real-world engineering problems to solve on actual Bell design and manufacturing programs. Graduates are given the opportunity to apply for multi-year Bell internships, and some are eventually hired as full-time company employees.
What started as a small program with about a dozen students and three universities has grown into a national one with nearly 500 applicants annually, according to Jeff Lowinger, Bell’s executive vice president of engineering.
The selection process is rigorous. “We focus on their schooling first. We do look for a certain grade point average, but it is not the end-all. It really centers around the conversation we have with an applicant.” From 500 applicants, Bell whittles the choice down to phone interviews with 50. “We are looking at how well they articulate, what is their background, what are their interests, and do we believe they are really interested in coming to Bell and interested in the rotorcraft sector. Then we want to know how much they ask about the company and how much research they have done about it. We look at those things and we also try to maintain a balance. We don’t want to take too many applicants from any one school. The learning experience of having them integrate with people from different schools makes it more valuable for them,” Lowinger said.
Boot campers arrive on a Sunday for orientation and quickly are given training on the Bell products, tours of the company’s design and manufacturing facilities, familiarization with Six Sigma analysis quality tools, information in a designated subject matter, and assignment to a team charged with solving an actual problem.
“They work with that team for an entire week to solve the problem. They learn how to analyze it, come up with the best alternative approaches, make a determination, and, if they have time, prototype a solution. These students are up until two or three in the morning every day,” said Lowinger. “It’s an intense week,” he said, with students sometimes working 20-hour days and providing creative solutions to vexing problems, “something we are struggling with,” Lowinger said.
At the end of the week, participants meet with Bell’s executive leadership team and present their solutions.
Boot-camper ideas have successfully been applied to front-line Bell products, including the under-development 525 Relentless super-medium twin, where a boot campers’ ideas were applied to the design of the cargo hold and the baggage handling system design and tooling for the drive system for the aircraft. “These students come up with a lot of different ideas. It’s the benefit of having people on the outside looking in,” Lowinger said.
He said today’s engineering students are more adept at using electronic tools that enable them to “learn much faster and more quickly produce a capable output,” allowing Bell to use leaner development teams for new products such as the 525. “The new engineering tools allow you to run with a smaller staff and collaborate and make decisions much more quickly. They are driving the collaboration to make faster decisions,” Lowinger said.
Lowinger said that students who come into the program “knowing nothing about rotorcraft become quickly engaged” and see the career opportunities within the industry. He estimates that Bell hires approximately 50 percent of all its boot-camp and internship graduates, between 40 and 70 each year. “It’s a great place for them to learn about the company and decide if it is the right place for them, and it is a good audition for us to see how they perform in the workplace.”
Bell is starting a boot camp in Canada to feed its operations at Mirabel. It has also launched an internship program in India and plans to start a boot camp there this year as well at the Textron Technology Center in Bangalore, which currently employs 500 engineers.
“My hiring now is really around boot camps, interns, the university boards that I sit on and where I do guest lectures,” Lowinger said. “I’m happy with the talent we have recruited over the last four to five years. We have a significant populace of new engineers who will serve us well into the future.”