Hire Education : Job Retraining Gives Laid-Off Aerospace Workers a New Start

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Riveting on DC-9s at McDonnell Douglas was Dean Denbeck's job before he got a pink slip. Now, he was where he never thought he'd be--in a classroom facing a computer screen.

A laid-back, laid-off 25-year-old, Denbeck has decided that, in light of the scarcity of jobs for aircraft mechanics, he will learn to be a computer repair technician.

"This is a whole new concept for me, but I'm picking it up just like a second nature," he said from beneath a Dallas Cowboys hat. His face, which was lit by a smile, bore no traces of the anguish he suffered over losing a job he loved.

The classroom was green-carpeted, fluorescent-lit and, like several similar rooms, filled with laid-off men and women from McDonnell Douglas who are in a federally funded program that retrains displaced aerospace workers.

It was just before 9 on a morning last week. Men in suits, representatives of Focus Automation, a computer-training corporation, were taking doughnuts to the classrooms in a Lakewood building on Clark Avenue. The building, ironically, once was used by McDonnell Douglas as an employee-training facility.

But the students, most of them much older than Denbeck, weren't grabbing up the doughnuts. They were too intent on listening to their instructors or studying their screens, which represented their hope for the future.

"Hopefully, I'll have a job when I'm done with this," said Denbeck, who worked at McDonnell Douglas for three years before being laid off last November.

Denbeck is one of thousands of McDonnell Douglas workers who have been laid off in recent years because the company has been losing business to competitors such as Boeing and Europe-based Airbus. This year alone, a company official said, more than 3,000 workers have been cut at the Long Beach plant. Those layoffs, along with jobs lost through attrition, have dropped the plant's work force from 19,000 to 13,000.

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Monitoring the classes from a hallway was Matthew Wenzel, Focus Automation's director of government contracts. A stylishly dressed man of 33, with a trimmed mustache and light brown hair that fell onto the back of his suit coat, he explained, "This is Clinton's Economic Recovery Plan in motion."

Under that plan, most laid-off aerospace workers are eligible for government-funded training programs.

Wenzel said that this group of 72 students was the first to be trained by his company, which offers 11 computer courses.

Focus Automation, which is based in Costa Mesa, is one of many schools that offer government-funded training for the unemployed. Students get an additional 26 weeks of unemployment benefits on top of the 52 weeks they are entitled to.

When he wasn't checking on the classes, Wenzel was talking to prospective students, organizing open-house seminars and setting up the second round of classes, which begin Oct. 4.

"We'd like to have the building filled by June," he said. That would mean about 700 students, he added.

The courses vary in length from four to 28 weeks, with classes held from 9 to 5. At the end of each course, students are taught how to write a resume and are assisted in finding jobs.

But there are no job guarantees. "The Southern California market is the softest in the country now," Wenzel said. "But we think we give them as good a chance as anyone to find employment."

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Denbeck liked working on planes. He was making a good living for his wife and child. "I was making $15 an hour," he said, looking up from his computer. "I was building dreams. I was in the process of buying a house. I was in closing, and I had to pull out."

It took him a long time to get over the shock of being laid off.

"You figure you love a job so much that you get involved with it so much, and all of a sudden they give you a pink slip saying you gotta go," he said. "You don't know what the feeling is until you're there."

Denbeck got 26 weeks of unemployment benefits from the state, then received a 26-week extension under a federal program. Now, he will get 26 more weeks of benefits.

"I get $460 (in unemployment pay) every two weeks," he said. "We're barely surviving."

In the months before he applied for the TRA program, Denbeck searched for mechanic and electrician jobs in Oregon, Colorado and Utah, but encountered only flat rejections.

"I miss working at Douglas," he said. "The atmosphere, my friends. It's sad for people to get laid off when they work so hard for the company."

He thought for a moment about the three years he had worked on DC-9 fuselage joints.

"I was really good at what I was doing," he said. Then he punched in a command on his keyboard, and got on with his new life.

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In another classroom, computer graphics instructor Eilene Chandler was helping Kelvin Abney draw a color picture of an observatory on a Macintosh computer.

"You're going to have to play with your colors," she said. "The blue should be at the top. Maybe more navy. Maybe we need to apply more green on the rectangle and set it back one position, so you're not getting the full gradient of this object."

Abney, 28, who was wearing a black T-shirt and pants with a wild orange-and-black design, seemed to understand this computer talk, though he was just starting his third week of training.

A McDonnell Douglas mechanic who worked on the wings of C-17s for 2 1/2 years, he was laid off last September and has been unable to find a job.

"I still would like to be doing mechanic work," he said.

But now, with the computer design experience he is getting and additional training, he envisions a new career as a civil engineer.

Coincidentally, Abney's teacher is a former computer operator at McDonnell Douglas who was laid off last October. She was recently hired by Focus Automation.

"I feel the camaraderie here," she said. "We're all McDonnell Douglas people."

What she has seen in the first couple of weeks of these classes has amazed her.

"These people have drilled rivets for 10 years or worked on assembly lines," she said, "and now they are going into a completely different area. When they first sit down here they are intimidated. You can see the fear in their faces. That lasts for a couple of days, then I have to make them take their breaks."

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N ot all of the students were blue-collar workers. Ken Finister Sr., 37, a flight operations administrator, had worked at McDonnell Douglas 13 years when he was laid off in January.

Finister, who has an engineering degree, looked for jobs in his field but found none that would pay what he had been making in Long Beach.

"So I got frustrated and thought the best thing to do was go back to school," he said. "And I think computers are the wave of the future."

Joyce Stanbrough, an enthusiastic woman of 44 who lives in Signal Hill, was in a class called "Certified NetWare Engineer & Accelerated Unix System Administration." She had been a computer specialist at McDonnell Douglas for 11 years. She was laid off in March, 1992, and has been without benefits for 18 months.

"I was fortunate that I remarried, and my husband did not work for Douglas," she said with a laugh.

After her layoff, she went to Long Beach City College for a year, then looked unsuccessfully for work. She intends to get a bachelor's degree from Cal State Long Beach.

"All the experience and expertise in the world don't help in a market like this without a degree," she said. "I'm hoping this is what I need to find a job."

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Late in the afternoon, Bob Kelly, a beefy man in his mid-40s who was laid off last November from his job assembling MD-11s, was in the hall eating one of the many doughnuts that were still left.

Kelly is taking the Office Automation Specialist course, which offers an introduction to computers.

"This is going to open up something new for me," he said. "It's a whole new learning experience, and I like to learn. I've been wanting a chance to work with my brain instead of my back. I've been a machinist, a truck driver and a dockhand."

He laughed, and added, "My body's getting tired."

It was now 5 p.m., and classes were supposed to be over. But Kelly and most of the other students didn't rush to the parking lot like they once did at the aircraft plant when their shift ended.

Their futures were at stake, so they went back to their computers.

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