Justin Wong, an aerospace engineering student from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was schmoozing on Facebook.com last fall when he came across a sleek Boeing job ad.
Wong, who had just interned at the aerospace company, saw the banner on the popular social networking site as a "two-way street" — a defense behemoth reaching out to today's youth in their virtual playground.
"My first impression was that Boeing is getting with the times," said the 21-year-old senior, who will work at Boeing's satellite division after graduation. "It shows the company is making an effort to talk to us on our level."
It's no secret the U.S. aerospace industry is rapidly graying: The average age of an aerospace worker was 45 in 2005. By next year, roughly one out of four will be eligible to retire.
Faced with a looming brain drain, companies are cooking up creative ways to lure and keep talent from chatting with students online to fast-tracking young workers to be future leaders.
Industry analysts say there's still time to stave off a shortage — if the effort begins now.
"The work force isn't going to suddenly disappear," said Jeremiah Gertler, assistant vice president of the Aerospace Industries Association, a trade group. "We actually have enough time to start building up the folks for the future."
For years, recruiters flooded college campuses, promoting internships, setting up luncheons and handing out leaflets at job fairs. While many aerospace and defense companies still consider face-to-face contact their best weapon, more are experimenting with virtual connections.
For example, Boeing Co. last year advertised a contest on Facebook to win an iPod Nano or iTunes gift card. Facebook users who entered the sweepstakes listened to a short video promoting the company and answered a multiple-choice quiz. The company then followed up with job openings.
Boeing also uses Facebook to keep in touch with workers hired through traditional channels. Interns who will work at the company's Southern California plants this summer were invited to join a Facebook group created by Rob Papandrea, a 28-year-old former Boeing engineer turned college recruiter.
Interns are valuable because many land full-time jobs after their gigs. Recruiters are increasingly going out of their way to make interns feel welcome in a corporate environment, and that sometimes means speaking their language — on the Internet.
"We've got to go to their turf," Papandrea said.
It works both ways. Papandrea said he often gets random messages on Facebook and other networking sites from young engineers interested in Boeing.
The Boeing intern group, with 127 members, has been messaging one another with a simple "hi" or questions about housing and other topics. The page even lists an invitation to a mixer later this month before summer internships start.
"It'll be a lot easier to break the ice and socialize," said intern Senad Basic, a 22-year-old computer science student at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The aerospace sector — loosely made up of people who design and develop aircraft, spacecraft, missiles and engine systems — was flush with engineers during the Cold War. Workers from that era still make up the heart of today's work force.
The industry took a nosedive in the 1990s. Military spending cuts forced businesses to downsize or merge to stay afloat. Many young engineers fled to dot-coms and other tech startups.
There were 630,000 aerospace workers last year compared with 1.1 million in 1990. The ranks of workers 25 to 34 years old plunged from 27 percent in 1992 to 15 percent in 2005, according to the aerospace association.
With fewer students interested in engineering, many wonder whether defense contractors can attract enough skilled workers to replace retiring baby boomers.
Other industries facing a talent shortage can easily outsource jobs overseas where labor is cheaper. But defense contractors have a harder time hiring non-citizens because of national security clearances and government restrictions on technology transfer.
Lockheed Martin Corp., the nation's No. 1 military contractor, started a chat room earlier this year on its Web site where recruiters host daily one-on-one instant messaging fests with job seekers.
The virtual chat was not specifically created to attract younger workers, but many college and high school students log on to seek advice and learn about internships, said Pete Bugnatto, a recruiter based in Silicon Valley.
Every Wednesday, Bugnatto's computer lights up with a torrent of IMs from job candidates. He greets every user who signs on during the two-hour chat window and divvies up the questions among eight other recruiters.
The chat room for recent college grads is among the most popular, with recruiters answering hundreds of questions during each session.
"It's one way for them to get immediate attention. They can chat with someone in real time," Bugnatto said.
Raytheon Co. is trying to take the guesswork out of recruiting by targeting specific regions. In the past, the defense contractor took a "shotgun approach" by flooding college campuses and job fairs with recruiters and trying to appeal to the largest number of people.
Last year, the company developed a proprietary computer software program that analyzes federal labor and demographic data. Recruiters use the software to zero in on engineering hotspots and areas with a diverse population.
Once Raytheon targets a region, it holds job fairs and sends mass e-mails to engineers and scientists.
"We're getting more scientific and more deliberate" in our recruiting, said John Malanowski, vice president of talent acquisition.
Along with using technology, aerospace companies are bolstering their ranks by training young workers.
Rolls-Royce PLC, the world's second-largest aircraft engine maker, started a training program in 2004 that grooms 20-somethings to become future leaders. Normally, it takes about 10 years to get promoted. Under the accelerated program, a worker can become a middle manager in five to six years.
Workers are graded on their productivity, business judgment and influencing skills.
Not everyone makes it. Some voluntarily drop out because of work schedule conflicts. Others who aren't up to par go back to their day jobs.
"We try to make it so that it's a soft landing. It doesn't mean your career is over," said Hugh Harvey, a Rolls-Royce executive.
Nikki McMullen is among 50 employees chosen for the fast track. Her duties included overseeing a five-member team, giving PowerPoint updates to executives and helping design a new factory in England.
McMullen said she never had a problem with the age difference.
"I try not to come across like I know it all because I know that I don't," she said.