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Demand at Aerospace Firms Continues to Soar : Companies Try New Tricks to Lure Workers

Times Staff Writer

Engineers at Douglas Aircraft Co. in Long Beach are earning hefty bonuses these days under a new incentive program, but the bonuses have little to do with designing airplanes.

Douglas is so hungry for new engineers that it is awarding its own employees bonuses of $1,000 for every engineer they can recruit onto the Douglas payroll. The awards, which consist of $750 in cash and $250 in catalogue merchandise, are paid if the new recruit stays on the job a minimum of three months.

So far, Douglas has picked up several dozen highly prized aerospace engineers for its budding programs to build a new Air Force cargo jet and a new Navy trainer jet, projects that will eventually add thousands of jobs.

The unusual recruitment effort is just one indication of how hot the Southern California aerospace industry employment picture has become. In addition to engineers, aerospace firms are finding skilled craftsmen, technicians and certain manufacturing specialists in short supply.

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After five years of massive Defense Department budget increases and steadily recovering orders for commercial airliners, the aerospace industry is in the midst of one of its strongest growth phases in recent history.

Six of the 10 largest private employers in Southern California are aerospace firms. In the Los Angeles area alone, aerospace employment amounts to 297,000, up nearly 13,000 from a year ago, according to the California Employment Development Department.

And this recent spectacular growth is not expected to reverse itself anytime soon. Although political opposition to the defense budget is growing in Washington, industry experts do not see a downturn coming. Growth in the defense budget will be held to the rate of inflation in 1986, and that alone should sustain most of the major programs.

Congress is still arguing over the final Pentagon budget, but it is expected to provide $99.1 billion for arms and related equipment in fiscal 1986. An additional $35.5 billion will be committed for research, development and testing.

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Labor market analysts note that this massive funding has created local employment growth in aerospace that has outpaced growth in other industries in California and created extraordinary employment opportunities for qualified people. Demand for aeronautical engineers alone will leap 50% by 1990, according to the EDD.

Virtually every product line in the defense and aerospace business is building up:

Military and commercial aircraft production, the longstanding mainstay of the industry in California, is up strongly. Six final aircraft assembly plants are scattered around the Los Angeles area, producing the Rockwell B-1 bomber, the Northrop F-5 fighter, the Lockheed TR-1 spy plane, the Lockheed P-3 patrol craft and the Douglas MD-80 commercial airliner, among others. Moreover, Northrop is completing construction of yet another aircraft final-assembly plant in Palmdale, the seventh active final-assembly site in the county.

The satellite and spacecraft industry is recording its highest production ever of commercial communications satellites and military special-purpose satellites. Hughes Aircraft, TRW, Ford Aerospace, Rockwell and Lockheed all are major producers of satellites in California, representing more than 50% of the nation’s production capacity. West Coast firms employ 66.1% of all space industry workers.

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Missile and ordnance production at the handful of firms in Los Angeles is soaring. Hughes Aircraft, TRW and General Dynamics are leaders in strategic, tactical and cruise missiles, areas that have all received huge increases in funding.

Finally, the aerospace electronics area is growing faster than any other part of the defense budget, posing a challenge to the Pentagon’s efforts just to find enough companies capable of bidding for new contracts. Hughes, Rockwell, TRW and Northrop are all leaders in this area, as well.

The greatest employment demand at these contractors is for engineers of virtually every discipline, but with particular demand in aeronautical, electronic and mechanical engineering.

Engineers, scientists and technicians account for almost 25% of the industry’s work force, according to the Aerospace Industries Assn. of America, a trade group. In addition, 47.3% of all engineers and scientists in the aerospace industry are on the West Coast, while 49.5% of all technicians are on the West Coast.

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Nationwide, the aerospace industry’s demand for scientists and engineers has soared by 19% in the past two years, according to the association. Such demand is outstripping the supply of engineers, especially in certain key specialties, such as electronics engineers with training in optical systems, signal processing and satellite communications, according to Sandy Lechtick, president of National Recruiters Corp., a defense industry head-hunting firm. Other sought-after skills are in aircraft structure design and stress analysis, he says.

Qualified engineers have virtually a free choice of where they want to work. Each week, major corporations sponsor job fairs, open houses and large advertising campaigns designed to lure engineers away from other companies.

“At one time, a company could put an ad in the newspaper and get hundreds of responses,” Lechtick says. “Now, the responses are so poor that they have to offer finder’s fees or bonuses or company stock to compete with others in the industry.”

The demand is driving up salaries. Senior engineers and scientists in non-management jobs earn up to $65,000 annually.

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Northrop, traditionally one of the smaller prime defense contractors in Los Angeles, has recorded above-average growth in recent years, thanks in large part to its stealth bomber program. The company has added 4,000 jobs in the past year in the Los Angeles area alone and now has a work force of 32,000 in the area.

“We are still growing and over the next several years, we will continue to grow,” says John J. Richardson, vice president of industrial relations at Northrop. “People who enter the engineering discipline and do well in school can feel reasonably confident that they are going to have opportunities in our industry.”

But Richardson notes that the industry growth has opened many opportunities for skilled individuals other than engineers, especially aerospace craftsmen and technicians. The industry is in seriously short supply of such crafts as toolmakers and machinists and jig and fixture builders, who make the implements to produce aircraft.

The majority of these skilled tradesmen are trained on the job after demonstrating an aptitude in other manufacturing jobs. But individuals can now obtain specific training in these occupations at technical institutes, such as those supported by the Southern California Industry Education Council.

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After a two-year course of study, an aerospace tradesman will typically spend another two to four years to reach full competence in building fixtures and tools necessary to manufacture high-performance aircraft, spacecraft and weapons. Master machinists, for example, earn $14.23 per hour at Northrop.

“The intellectual level of craftsmen today is much greater than in the past, because he has to have much greater knowledge of how computer-controlled machines operate,” Richardson says. “Good top-flight craftsmen are always tough to come by.”

Douglas Aircraft, a unit of St. Louis-based McDonnell Douglas Corp., faces one of the most promising expansions in the aerospace industry, based on a mix of both commercial and military aircraft programs. The company employs 19,700 at its Long Beach and Torrance factories, up from 16,700 at the start of the year. Douglas expects to hire an addition 600 workers by year’s end and a whopping 9,000 by the end of the decade.

“We need engineers across the board with specialties in airframe design, wings, fuselage, landing gear, electronics,” says Russ Peterson, Douglas manager of employment and placement. “A lot of the people who started in this field in World War II are now reaching retirement status, so we have a lot of people to replace as well.”

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Douglas is making up for spot shortages of workers by scheduling overtime in many departments, including engineering and manufacturing, Peterson says. That means 10-hour days or six-day weeks.

Douglas has recruited some 800 engineers this year from other aerospace firms and some 60 colleges around the nation.

Aircraft manufacturing still requires a huge production work force, which Douglas is also seeking. The principal aircraft production jobs are for fabricators and assemblers. Assemblers at Douglas can reach a top wage of $12.50 per hour.

Of all the large prime contractors in Southern California, no firm has grown as much in the last decade as Hughes Aircraft of El Segundo. In 1976, Hughes employed about 39,000 workers. Today, the firm has about 77,000 employees. It had projected to reach 78,000 by the end of this year but may well end up with 80,000 employees, a company spokesman says.

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Hughes’ growth has been powered by its emergence as a leader in a broad variety of fields, such as air radar, ground radar, satellites, missiles and optical systems.

Other major employers that have experienced significant growth in recent years include Rockwell International with 44,500 employees in Southern California, TRW with 23,000 employees and Lockheed with 17,700 employees. All three are in production phases on major defense contracts.

General Dynamics’ Pomona division, another leader in tactical missiles, is planning for substantial expansion in the years ahead. The firm has a work force of 9,500, up 500 since the beginning of the year. Its highest demand is for engineers with specialties in microwave, radar, millimeter wave, instrument, manufacturing and high-power microwave design and engineering, says C. L. McMillan, vice president of industrial relations. In addition to engineers, the company is hiring machinists, calibration technicians and numerical control machine repairman, McMillan says.

General Dynamics’ Convair division, a manufacturer of cruise missiles and space-launch vehicles, is the largest defense contractor in San Diego County. General Dynamics employs 12,300 workers in San Diego.

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