World of Difference

TIMES STAFF WRITER; Karen Kaplan covers aerospace, technology and telecommunications. She can be reached via e-mail at

In the highly cyclical aerospace industry, workers are frequently laid off during slow times and rehired once business picks up again a year or two later.

But the last time Northrop Grumman Corp. was on the verge of a downturn, managers worried that if they let employees go, they would leave either the state or the industry and wouldn't be around to rehire when the time came.

So the Los Angeles-based company decided to turn a potential liability into an asset. Rather than lay off 525 mechanics and painters, Northrop spent four years devising a comprehensive retraining program to prepare them for the increasingly competitive aerospace business. Northrop won a $3.6-million grant from the California Employment Training Panel in September 1996 and pitched in $9.5 million of its own money to pay workers' salaries while they are being retrained.

One year later, the company, its education partners at West Los Angeles College and state funders are declaring the New Directions program a success.

So far, 318 workers have completed up to 30 weeks of training, and only five have dropped out. An additional 118 are taking courses now, and 77 are waiting to start.

That 2% dropout rate is far below the average among programs that win state money--typically only 60% of enrollees complete a training program, said Gerard Geismar, executive director of the Employment Training Panel in Sacramento.

The New Directions program seeks to broaden the skills of electrical, mechanical, painting and composite fabrication mechanics at Northrop Grumman's military aircraft systems division in El Segundo, said Bob Keller, who heads the program. By the time they complete the course and begin working on the advanced FA-18 E/F "Super Hornet" fighter at the company's El Segundo production facility, they will be able to add inspection work and planning to their job descriptions--and $1.25 to their hourly salaries.

One of the unexpected benefits has come in improved employee confidence and morale.

"Their self-image has jumped through the roof," said Wes Martin, a production supervisor who took the class with the mechanics he supervises.

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