The wave of defense industry layoffs in Southern California is costing thousands of people far more than their jobs. Self-esteem, savings, homes and family tranquility are among the first things to go.
Laid-off workers might have to leave the area to find comparable work, and those who stay may be forced into lower-paying but more stable jobs. Even finding jobs in such fast-growing fields as computer programming, health care or law will not be easy for many workers who face months or years of retraining to make a career move.
Even though thousands have already lost their jobs, the worst is yet to come as once-paternalistic employers tighten their belts and chop payrolls in response to the slowdown in military spending.
Nearly 20,000 California aerospace and defense industry workers had lost their jobs by the end of 1989, and another 20,000 will be added to unemployment rolls this year, according to various estimates. The ranks of unemployed should rise to 110,000 by 1994, according to DRI/McGraw Hill, an economic forecasting firm.
Major layoffs announced this year include 2,700 jobs at Northrop at facilities in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, 8,000 at Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach and 2,000 at Lockheed, mostly in Burbank. Lockheed will lay off an additional 4,500 workers during the next few years as the company transfers military projects from its Burbank plant to facilities in Georgia.
“This is not a good time for this to be happening,” said David G. Hensley, who studies the California economy at the UCLA Business Forecasting Project. “We see no booming sector. We just don’t see any industry that could absorb people--whether they could transfer skills or not.”
The collapsing fortunes of the defense and aerospace industries have left workers feeling trapped.
“It’s going to be hard because everybody is laying off--Rockwell, TRW, Hughes, Lockheed, Northrop,” said Brenda Brown, a 33-year-old Carson resident who lost her $13-an-hour job at Douglas Aircraft at the end of June. Brown, her husband and son plan to rent out their brand-new home and move in with her mother until she gets a new job.
“I don’t have a (college) degree, and I’m up against people with degrees making $7 an hour,” Brown said. “What kind of future is there for me?”
For Brown and unemployed workers like her, companies and communities have responded with a series of job fairs, resume and job-finding workshops and time off with pay to search for new work.
In El Segundo, the Aerospace Human Resources Network, a public-private joint venture created to fill aerospace job openings during the boom years, now dedicates itself to helping unemployed employees find work in any industry.
But as the number of unemployed grows, the search for jobs will become more heated, and some firms have come under pressure to reduce benefits to departing workers. Douglas Aircraft, for instance, gave the first wave of laid-off workers 60 days off with pay to find other work. Those laid off in the second round in June were not so lucky, having to remain on the job. “We needed the hands,” a company spokesman said.
Searching for a new job will be relatively painless for some workers--such as computer programmers and secretaries with easily transferable skills, say economists. Many blue-collar machinists or highly specialized engineers, however, could face a long wait in the unemployment line.
“The fastest job growth has been in the service sector,” said Steve Weiner, acting principal economist at the Southern California Assn. of Governments. But “there is a question of the transferability of aerospace skills to those industries. That would probably be very difficult.”
The region’s growing pool of unemployed talent has made it fertile territory for head hunters. Recruiters for Seattle’s Boeing Aircraft--which is still hiring because its commercial airliner business is booming--temporarily set up shop in Long Beach to interview laid-off workers.
Boeing is taking back to Washington state lifelong Californians such as Martha Collins, a 42-year-old Burbank native and former Lockheed planner who was let go in March.
“It’s so depressing here, and it keeps getting worse,” said Collins, who will be accompanied by her husband but will leave behind two grown daughters. “I just look at it as a good opportunity and as a fresh start.”
Aerospace and defense industry workers have learned to live with uncertainty--even in good times--as government contracts ended, commercial projects were completed and workers were laid off until the next program was up and running.
The uncertainty was made bearable by fat paychecks and lucrative benefits, such as company-paid technical training and college tuition, that allowed workers to enjoy the good life even in pricey Southern California. But now, with peace breaking out in many places around the world, long-term prospects for defense industry workers are bleak.
Paychecks from Hughes Aircraft paid for Radu Marian’s home near the water in Redondo Beach and for trips to New Zealand and the Caribbean. But last July, after working 16 years in the defense industry, the good life ended for Marian, an electronics engineer, with the arrival of a layoff notice.
The 39-year-old Romanian immigrant has no health insurance, has fallen behind on child-support payments and cannot afford to pay for his daughter’s college education. In a desperate bid to earn some cash, Marian took out a newspaper ad offering his services as a handyman. The only response was from a Manhattan Beach family who paid him $250 to build a bicycle storage shed.
“I am extremely surprised that I would take this long to find a job,” said Marian, whose childhood interest in science and space exploration had led him to work in the defense industry. “It’s a source of great concern. I have to ask the question, how long can I sustain myself or if I can ever go back to work?”
The industry’s relatively high salaries have haunted laid-off employees as they are forced to consider lower-paid work. Former Douglas worker Jeff Sherman dropped by a state employment office only to be told that “they have mostly low-paying jobs. I was almost making $16 an hour. I’m rather leery of working in aerospace again. However, it is a very high-paying industry.”
But with each day out of work, the pressure to bring money home and accept marginal jobs intensifies.
“We are eating into our reserves,” said Thomas Asada-Grant, a 38-year-old training executive at Northrop until he was laid off in May. “We are taking money out of our children’s savings accounts. We broke into an IRA. At the end of August, I will have to take anything.”
Former defense workers are turning to the commercial side of the aerospace industry for relief from the government-dependent defense sector. But even these workers have found that switching sides is no guarantee of protection from industry turbulence. Douglas Aircraft, a builder of passenger jets, was forced to retract job offers to former defense workers after the recently announced reorganization of its corporate parent, McDonnell Douglas Corp.
“The tragic thing is a lot of the commercial high-tech companies don’t want anything to do with the aerospace and defense engineers,” said Sandy Lechtick, president of National Recruiters in Canoga Park. “The commercial world is 180 degrees different from the defense world. We’ve been able to get engineers in the door. But we are told repeatedly that any resumes that are defense-oriented are trashed.”
Wynne Thursby, a 47-year-old engineer who managed a military satellite project for OAO Corp. in El Segundo before being laid off in March, is trying to find a similar job in the commercial side of the industry--with little success. “The problem is there are not enough commercial satellites,” she said. “You’re fighting panic. You don’t want to take a job just because it’s a job.”
Many workers say they no longer want anything to do with aerospace, either the commercial or defense segments. “I’m basically looking for jobs in the state, federal and county governments--something more stable,” Brown said. “I know I will take a drop in pay, but at this point in my life, I’d rather do this and be secure than go through another layoff.”
Some find that they do not have much chance of remaining in the industry, even if they wanted to. At age 64, Sol Fink, another laid-off Lockheed worker, holds little hope of finding another aerospace job. But the onetime Fuller Brush salesman says he and his wife cannot get by on the $300 monthly pension he will receive after 11 1/2 years with Lockheed.
“I’m going to try all the different aircraft plants,” said Fink, who constructed plumbing on aircraft mock-ups. “But they can look at my gray hairs and say that I’m overqualified. They are going to go for the younger ones.”
Looking for work has become an almost full-time occupation for many. “My job right now is to find a job,” Thursby said. The Culver City resident keeps copies of her resume handy, as well as a date book where she records phone calls and letters sent to potential employers. When she is not filling out job applications or visiting aerospace job fairs, she works part time for friends in the accounting department of their small company.
“It helps keep you from getting depressed,” said Thursby, who borrowed against her retirement funds to stay afloat until she finds another job. If she stays at home, she said, she feels “that nobody wants to talk to me anymore, that nobody wants me anymore.”
Combatting feelings of loneliness and uncertainty is a common trait among out-of-work aerospace employees.
“Every now and then you do panic,” said Norman Gilbreath of Westwood, who was a software engineer at TRW before losing his job. “You get these tremendous insecurities. The hardest part is knowing you are nearly the only person who cares about what happens to you.”
Besides triggering insecurities, the layoffs have changed and strained family relationships. Asada-Grant now stays home to care for his two infant daughters and has tried preparing meals from scratch to cut the cost of prepared foods. His wife, Keiko, has become the sole breadwinner with her job as a translator.
“I have become a househusband,” said Asada-Grant, who worked for Northrop as a training executive. “My kids see me a lot more. My wife says they seem happier.”
But tensions run high. Many discussions of family problems big and small turn into arguments linked to his unemployment, Asada-Grant said. “We have horrible arguments. You sit down and strangle each other for 20 minutes, and then you make up. Until I get a job, this pattern will recur.”
There is a slight chance that the family’s turmoil might come to an end soon. Asada-Grant is due to hear whether he has gotten a new job--as a public school math teacher.