Getting Their Careers Back in Gear : Jobs: Laid-off aerospace workers learn new skills in a government-funded course about hazardous materials and environmental cleanup.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Frank Willis spent more than 32 years of his life working for Lockheed Corp.

As a senior design specialist, Willis helped craft planes for use by the military and civilian branches of government. He enjoyed his work, and his salary of $56,000 was enough for a comfortable lifestyle. But all that changed on Aug. 31, 1990, after the Navy canceled a $600-million contract with Lockheed to develop an anti-submarine patrol aircraft.

"When the government canceled the P-7A contract, everybody on that program was immediately laid off," he said.

Now Willis, 57, spends his days in a classroom at West Los Angeles College, preparing for work in a new field: controlling and cleaning up hazardous waste.

Willis is one of 30 students enrolled in a new government-funded hazardous materials and environmental cleanup course that trains laid-off aerospace workers for a wide range of jobs, including some related to occupational health.

Students who finish the certificate course will be qualified to work as hazardous materials technicians--those who clean up oil spills, chemical leaks and other environmental hazards.

Some will end up as inspectors with such regulatory bodies as the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the South Coast Air Quality Management District, ensuring compliance with laws governing air pollution and water quality. Others might work in private industries overseeing the proper treatment and disposal of hazardous waste.

Few imagined that they would find themselves in such careers.

"I don't think anybody just woke up one morning and decided, 'Hey, I'm going to go into haz mat,' " said Kim Boyd, a program control analyst at Hughes Aircraft, where she worked for four years. "But we've got to find something. Aerospace is going out."

And the use of aerospace workers to clean up the environment has struck those involved in the program as interesting.

"The ultimate irony is these laid-off aerospace workers are being trained to clean up the mess . . . left by a number of aerospace manufacturing companies that have chosen to move or go out of business," said Jim Quillin of the California Conference of Machinists, which represents workers in aerospace, air transport and manufacturing. "I'm not complaining, though, because other than that, there are no jobs emerging to place these aerospace workers in. . . . That's a sad commentary."

Opportunities for jobs in various aspects of environmental work are growing, said Steve Fraser, director of the UAW Labor Employment & Training Corp. in Van Nuys, which helps displaced workers find other employment.

"It's the industry of the '90s," Fraser said. "Now that the aerospace industry is leaving Southern California, these folks are going to have to learn new skills. . . . There is a lot of interest in hazardous-waste management."

The training corporation, in conjunction with West Los Angeles College, offers the retraining classes free to laid-off aerospace employees, Fraser said.

In their new occupations, workers will start out earning far less than they did in the aerospace industry, but many say they have not been able to find work since being laid off and they welcome the chance to embark on second careers.

James O. Pierce, professor of occupational safety and health at USC, says the students are learning skills that will put them in line for jobs in one of the fastest-growing industries in the nation.

"I don't think you can drive through a five-block area in Los Angeles and not find a hazardous-waste site that's being remediated," Pierce said. "It's a horrendous problem and it's going to continue to grow."

Students in the classes tell stories of life in the decline of the aerospace industry's gilded age: the daily search among the classified ads, the fruitless job interviews and the realization that the lucrative salaries they earned in the industry might very well be a thing of the past for them.

The government-sponsored courses, they say, are the best thing going in an otherwise dismal job market.

"This is it," Willis said. "There are very limited opportunities out there--limited to none."

The Sylmar resident has worked only two weeks since being laid off more than a year ago.

Even those laid-off workers who have other skills have found it difficult to make the transition.

Gary Antonucci of Acton worked for 17 years at Lockheed, most recently as an engineering administrator. His wife, Ida, worked for five years as a program coordinator. Both were recently laid off.

"When we first were given our 60-day notice, we both felt we would not have that much of a problem," Gary Antonucci said.

Both have master's degrees that they thought would help them in their search for alternative employment, possibly in academia.

"Instead, every field was saturated with qualified people," Ida Antonucci said. "It wasn't very easy after all."

So instead of teaching class, Gary and Ida Antonucci are students.

One recent day, they and other students sat at desks in front of IBM computers, taking notes as lecturer Frank Rood of the Los Angeles Police Department's hazardous materials unit taught them "how to save people and the environment and not go home at night glowing in the dark," as Rood put it.

In a lively teaching style, Rood grilled the students on steps that must be taken when sizing up an incident such as an acid leak or oil spill.

Emerson Sharpe listened attentively and took notes. Sharpe worked at Lockheed for 17 years. His friend, Rueben Maldonado, worked at the company for 13 years. The two now car-pool to classes at the college, which is near Culver City.

"This is totally different," Sharpe said after the session, comparing the classes to his work as a numerical control milling machinist.

"We're learning a lot of chemistry, regulations and laws dealing with the environment," said Maldonado, a former expediter who described the program as intense.

Classes are taught by experts in the field and include simulations of hazardous situations that students are likely to encounter, said Clare Adams of the college's Center for Economic Development and Continuing Education.

During the course, students learn regulatory requirements of agencies such as the EPA, Cal/OSHA and the South Coast Air Quality Management District, as well as the technical principles underlying hazardous-materials and toxic-waste control.

Those who finish the eight-week course receive state and federal certificates in various aspects of environmental technology and receive job-finding help from the training corporation in Van Nuys.

The program, described as the first of its kind, is the result of months of study and a collaborative effort between the training corporation, the college and the Verdugo Private Industry Council, said Dennis Jones, vice president of research and development for the training corporation.

Earlier this year, the training corporation conducted a labor market survey to determine the labor needs of business and industry, Jones said.

"We determined that there is definitely going to be a need for skilled and trained people in environmental technology," he said.

The course was created by the Center for Economic Development and Continuing Education, which designs professional training programs for businesses and is funded by the state's Employment Training Panel and the federal Economic Dislocation and Workers Adjustment Assistance Act.

Center officials plan to train and find jobs for 100 laid-off aerospace workers by August, Jones said. All students must take a reading comprehension exam and "display a commitment to the rigorous curriculum" before starting the program, Jones said. Those now enrolled scored highest on the exam. Four more sessions of the course will be held at the college for other laid-off aerospace workers.

If the program is successful, organizers will apply for funding to expand it to reach other parts of California.

"Dislocation in aerospace has happened from San Diego to the Bay Area, and the problems in the environment exist from San Diego to the Bay Area," Jones said.

But while jobs in the field are plentiful, workers cannot expect to earn as much as they did in the aerospace industry.

Students who finish the program can expect a starting salary of $8 to $12 an hour, said Melonee Mitchell-Evans of the training corporation.

Some, including Ida Antonucci, who described her work at Lockheed as "too specialized," are more concerned about learning usable skills than they are about the lower pay.

"That isn't my main concern," she said. "My main concern is gaining knowledge. . . . I have many years to work yet."

The fact that she is helping to clean up the environment makes the job gratifying, she said. For others, money is a definite concern.

"I'm sure it'll be as challenging as aerospace but nowhere near as rewarding monetarily, which is a drawback," Willis said.

But Pierce, the USC professor, says there is hope. "In the whole occupational safety and health field, there is a tremendous shortage of trained individuals, especially in the hazardous-waste areas," he said.

And aerospace companies such as Lockheed, which plans to relocate its Burbank operation to Georgia, are ensuring that the industry will flourish in Southern California. The company has been ordered to clean up the site it occupies in Burbank after studies revealed serious ground-water contamination.

Many students have already pondered the idea of returning to their former places of employment, this time to oversee the cleanup of hazardous materials.

Some, including Willis, are pragmatic about the idea.

"Somebody has to do it," he said.

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