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Newcomers Hoping for Electronics Employment Find a Changed Market : Jobs: Once-plentiful assembly work, popular among immigrants, has become scarce.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ask Tho Phan what job he is seeking, and the 21-year-old newcomer from Vietnam provides a quick answer. “Electrical assembly,” he says, his boyish face beaming. “I want the job with electrical assembly.”

It may not seem like a dream job, but even before arriving in Orange County four months ago, Phan had heard reports of compatriots who found work in electronics assembly and turned them into careers, moving up to positions as inspectors, technicians and supervisors. He had heard that electronics plants hire unskilled workers who speak little English and that they pay much better than the low-wage jobs available in hotels, restaurants and other service businesses.

“I can work in restaurant,” Phan said between English classes at the St. Anselm Cross-Cultural Community Center in Garden Grove, which is helping him find work. Phan frowns at that thought, then quickly adds, “I want electrical company.”

The stories Phan heard were true a few years ago, but the market for those jobs today in Southern California has changed a lot. Once-plentiful openings in electronics assembly are now scarce in Orange County, a region long known as a high-tech manufacturing center.

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Much of the work fell victim to the recession, deep cuts in aerospace, factory automation and manufacturing plants’ moves to places such as Texas and Mexico. Although the local economy shows signs of resurgence, those electronics assembly jobs will probably never return, analysts say.

“Robots and machines are now doing what human beings did, so there’s a tendency for these assembly jobs not to come back even if the economy starts showing strong expansion,” says Esmael Adibi, an economist at Chapman University in Orange.

The erosion of electronics assembly employment is a nationwide trend. The jobs have been in decline since the mid-1980s, when they hit a peak of 360,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 1993, the number had fallen to 315,000, a drop of nearly 13%.

An exact tally of the electronics assembly jobs lost in Orange County is not available, but industry data suggests that the percentage has been even higher. Between 1988 and last May, Orange County lost 35% of its employment--or 13,200 jobs--in the electronic equipment industry, a major employer of electronics assemblers.

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The loss has hit new arrivals the hardest, especially Asian and Latino immigrants and refugees.

Asians in particular have preferred electronics assembly work to restaurant or hotel jobs, said Marianne Blank, executive director at St. Anselm’s community center, a nonprofit group that has helped thousands of refugees, most from Southeast Asia, find jobs.

“It’s technical, and they could write home and be proud of it,” she said, “even if all they were doing was sitting and pushing buttons all day.”

But now, Blank says, many are having to settle for minimum-wage jobs sewing shirts or packing medicine into cartons. “It’s been very devastating,” she said.

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Electronics assemblers typically learn on the job. Their work includes reading diagrams, soldering, fabricating and fastening components such as capacitors. The jobs pay an average of only about $7 an hour, but most companies also provide medical insurance and other benefits, private and state-sponsored surveys show.

Aerospace companies have also eliminated hundreds of their own assembly jobs in recent years, and more layoffs could be on the way.

Hughes Aircraft, for example, has laid off about 100 assemblers at its Fullerton plant in the past year and is considering closing the factory altogether. If it does, another 250 electronics assemblers would be out of work, union officials say. A decision is expected later this month.

Elmer Batac, 36, says he was among 40 Hughes workers in Fullerton who were laid off in May. The company hired him as an electronics assembler in 1981, two years after he arrived in California from the Philippines.

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“The job provided me with a good livelihood,” Batac says, noting that by the time he was laid off, he was making more than $14 an hour. Now, Batac says, he is considering leaving the state and going into nursing.

“Electronics assembly, it’s sad,” Batac says. “We need a war to get these jobs back.”

Manufacturers of computer hardware products also employ electronics assemblers, and a few have been adding workers. But many others have cut back. Last year, for example, Helix Circuits and Diceon Electronics, both manufacturers of printed circuit boards in Irvine, closed plants that together eliminated more than 200 assembly jobs.

“The likelihood of (future) hiring is pretty slim,” says a spokeswoman for ITT Cannon, a Santa Ana maker of electronic connectors, echoing comments made by other small and large electronics companies in the area.

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Jim Thomas, vice president of Microsemi Corp., a maker of semiconductors in Santa Ana, remembers when times were different. Through the booming 1970s and up until the late ‘80s, he says, electronics assembly openings were so abundant that “we were begging people to work.”

But when the defense industry began retrenching a few years ago, Microsemi’s orders suffered, and in January, 1992, Thomas says, the company eliminated about 100 local assembly jobs. Since then, he says, Microsemi’s overall employment in Santa Ana has held steady at about 425. Of those 44% are Asian, mostly Vietnamese, and another 30% are Latino.

Alicia Menendez, 39, is one of the lucky ones. She got an assembler’s job at Microsemi during a hiring boom in May, 1980, a year after arriving in Santa Ana from Uruapan, Mexico. She was 24 at the time, she says, and “my whole fortune” was a suitcase of clothes and the $450 she had saved over the years working as a secretary in Mexico.

Menendez has been promoted several times since then--to lead worker, inspector and supervisor. She is now a quality-control supervisor and makes $13.90 an hour, and she and her husband, a print shop worker, were able to buy a four-bedroom house in Chino for themselves and their three children.

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Queenie Phu is another Microsemi employee who started as an assembler and worked her way up to a better-paying office job. Phu, a native of China, came to Microsemi in 1980, two years after arriving in the United States from Vietnam. She says: “I did not know much English, and I had no background in electronics. At first I didn’t know what I was doing.”

“I was lucky,” she says. “Long time ago, there was such a big demand for electrical workers. They gave me an interview, and I went to work right away.”

Phu says the job helped her adjust to life here because she had friends and co-workers at the plant who spoke Vietnamese and Chinese, and she could feel comfortable bringing ethnic food into the company lunchroom.

Today, Thomas says, the Microsemi plant has just one opening for an assembly-type job, and the competition is intense. “We get a hundred applications a day for that single job,” he says.

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The steady loss of electronics jobs has forced other changes.

At vocational schools, Asians and Latinos who once might have signed up for three months of electronics assembly training are now preparing for careers in computer science or library science, program directors say.

Ewing Taylor, a 15-year electronics instructor at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana remembers his typical class in the 1980s. “At that time, 85% were Asians, and they went straight to assembly,” he says. “There were jobs then, and it meant immediate employment at above-minimum wage.”

These days Taylor sees fewer Asian students, and he says that “most of them are looking to go on to four-year colleges.”

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But there are still hundreds of new arrivals clinging to dreams of a job market that is no more. Most find nothing but bitter disappointment.

Dung Trinh, 28, of Westminster is among them.

Trinh, a relative newcomer from Vietnam, last year quit his part-time electronics job in Corona because he wanted more work.

Ever since, Trinh has been looking hard for another assembly job but has come up empty.

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“In Vietnam, I repair fans,” he says. “I look for four, five months for job. But companies (are not) hiring.”


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