Reengineering Themselves

These ex-defense workers may not be beating their swords into plowshares, but computer animation and video compression products will do just fine, thank you.

With the help of the Los Angeles Private Industry Council, the Labor Employment Training Program and USC, a couple of dozen engineers who lost their jobs in aerospace are putting their skills to work in the region's new dominant industry: entertainment.

The first class completed the Multimedia Fellowship Program in January, and now 12 of the 20 graduates have landed in jobs at companies such as Warner Digital and at a host of small start-ups. Now the program's organizers are hoping to start another class in the fall.

"Once you have a background in engineering, it's easy to learn this," says Chrysostomos "Max" Nikias, a USC engineering professor and director of the school's Integrated Media Systems Center. "Multimedia, telecommunications, wireless networks, information management--these are all typical engineering problems."

The multimedia retraining program is not the first attempt to reengineer engineers so they can meet the demands of a changing economy. But the intensive yearlong program is unique because USC awards master's degrees in electrical engineering or computer science to those who complete the rigorous curriculum.

"A certificate is not worth much three or four years later," Nikias said. "This degree will stay with them for the rest of their lives. It makes them competitive for jobs all over the country."

That includes Southern California, where the combination of entertainment and technology firms has earned the region the nickname "Siliwood."

After Mary Kat Kennedy was laid off from her job as a senior systems analyst at McDonnell Douglas, she learned the popular desktop publishing programs Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator. But it was only after spending a year as a Multimedia Fellow that she landed a job in entertainment.

Now the Sherman Oaks resident works as a computer programmer for Warner Digital--a division of the mammoth Warner Bros. Studios--and got a $7,500 annual pay raise in the process.

Kennedy was one of more than 160 people who applied for the 24 spots in the program. To be accepted, candidates must be qualified for graduate study in USC's engineering school. The $18,000 cost is partly funded through city agencies, so applicants must either live in Los Angeles or have been laid off from a company in the city.

Patrick Matthews of Los Angeles had 21 years of full-time engineering experience--including nine years at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory--when he was laid off from the Pasadena government lab in 1990. Since then, he's been unable to find steady work in the defense industry.

"I went through all my insurance policies, I sold my house, I sold everything I owned except one old car," said Matthews, who was making $52,000 a year.

"Between 1990 and now, I've really only had three temporary jobs," Matthews said. "I seriously doubt that I could get a permanent job in aerospace. With 20 years of experience, I'm just too expensive and too old."

By the time he finished the program, he was fielding four job offers. In February he began a new career as a Web content developer for a multimedia outfit in West Los Angeles called Affinity.

Although Matthews' salary is substantially less than the $60,000 he figures he'd be making if he were still working at JPL, he says stock options and bonuses are helping make up the difference. So does the nature of the work. "Compared to aerospace, this is just as interesting and just as exciting," he said.

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Karen Kaplan's e-mail address is Karen.Kaplan@latimes.com

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