Aerospace Job Losses Putting L.A.'s Middle Class at Risk, Survey Warns

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles County faces "a continuing collapse" of its middle class unless government and industry officials try harder to create work that pays as well as the 127,000 aerospace jobs that the county has lost in the last eight years, a survey released Thursday asserts.

Although the county has benefited from job growth in other industries such as apparel, entertainment and trade, those occupations "are generally poor matches for the skills and wage expectations of defense workers," the study says.

The three-year survey by Rutgers University and the Economic Roundtable, a nonprofit research group in Los Angeles, says narrowing that wage gap will require stronger efforts to convert defense technologies to commercial uses and to retrain unemployed aerospace workers for other high-skilled tasks.

It remains an urgent problem because "tens of thousands" of aerospace jobs in the county "are still at risk" of being eliminated, since earlier cuts in Pentagon spending are still working their way through the industry, the study said.

"We're saying there has to be a more activist program" to prevent "the danger of a collapsing middle" class in the county economy, according to Ann Markusen, one of the study's authors and director of Rutgers' Project on Regional and Industrial Economics.

In some ways, the study reaffirms what many already know--that the region's once-dominant aerospace industry has been battered by Pentagon budget cuts in the post-Cold War era. But its research details how many of the nonaerospace jobs being created in the county are not offering wages that match those in aerospace and defense.

For instance, the study notes that the apparel industry is one area of rapid growth that has helped California overall climb out of its severe recession of the early 1990s. But the average local wage in apparel is $17,500 a year, compared with $48,900 a year in aerospace, the study says.

And although there were two aerospace jobs in the county for every apparel job in the mid-'80s, each industry is now about equal with just fewer than 111,000 jobs apiece, the report shows.

At a news conference announcing the study's findings, County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke said that the aerospace-led erosion of middle-class wages is also a serious drag on local sales and property taxes and that it adds to welfare and other social-service costs.

She also urged a greater effort toward defense conversion, such as those projects aimed at improving mass transit, but acknowledged that the "tremendous impact" of defense downsizing "is very challenging for us."

Still, the study's authors stress that Los Angeles County has made some strides in creating better-paying jobs, citing several embryonic defense-conversion projects. Some companies have also successfully shifted resources from defense to commercial sales.

But the authors also note that those efforts have not come close to creating the same number of well-paying jobs lost in the shrinking aerospace sector. They also assert that the county still has "a degree of denial" about the problem's severity, which "prevents the community from mobilizing as rapidly as it might in response."

One suggestion: The study recommends that local government would be justified in "jawboning" the region's defense contractors and the Pentagon to do a better job of helping laid-off aerospace workers find comparably paying jobs in other trades.

The county "deserves a return on its decades-long investment in the [aerospace] industry, both from federal government and its major corporate members," the study says.

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