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Demand at Aerospace Firms Continues to Soar : Companies Try New Tricks to Lure Workers

September 29, 1985|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | Times Staff Writer

Engineers at Douglas Aircraft Co. in Long Beach are earning hefty bonuses these days under a new incentive program, but the bonuses have little to do with designing airplanes.

Douglas is so hungry for new engineers that it is awarding its own employees bonuses of $1,000 for every engineer they can recruit onto the Douglas payroll. The awards, which consist of $750 in cash and $250 in catalogue merchandise, are paid if the new recruit stays on the job a minimum of three months.

So far, Douglas has picked up several dozen highly prized aerospace engineers for its budding programs to build a new Air Force cargo jet and a new Navy trainer jet, projects that will eventually add thousands of jobs.

The unusual recruitment effort is just one indication of how hot the Southern California aerospace industry employment picture has become. In addition to engineers, aerospace firms are finding skilled craftsmen, technicians and certain manufacturing specialists in short supply.

After five years of massive Defense Department budget increases and steadily recovering orders for commercial airliners, the aerospace industry is in the midst of one of its strongest growth phases in recent history.

Six of the 10 largest private employers in Southern California are aerospace firms. In the Los Angeles area alone, aerospace employment amounts to 297,000, up nearly 13,000 from a year ago, according to the California Employment Development Department.

And this recent spectacular growth is not expected to reverse itself anytime soon. Although political opposition to the defense budget is growing in Washington, industry experts do not see a downturn coming. Growth in the defense budget will be held to the rate of inflation in 1986, and that alone should sustain most of the major programs.

Congress is still arguing over the final Pentagon budget, but it is expected to provide $99.1 billion for arms and related equipment in fiscal 1986. An additional $35.5 billion will be committed for research, development and testing.

Labor market analysts note that this massive funding has created local employment growth in aerospace that has outpaced growth in other industries in California and created extraordinary employment opportunities for qualified people. Demand for aeronautical engineers alone will leap 50% by 1990, according to the EDD.

Virtually every product line in the defense and aerospace business is building up:

Military and commercial aircraft production, the longstanding mainstay of the industry in California, is up strongly. Six final aircraft assembly plants are scattered around the Los Angeles area, producing the Rockwell B-1 bomber, the Northrop F-5 fighter, the Lockheed TR-1 spy plane, the Lockheed P-3 patrol craft and the Douglas MD-80 commercial airliner, among others. Moreover, Northrop is completing construction of yet another aircraft final-assembly plant in Palmdale, the seventh active final-assembly site in the county.

The satellite and spacecraft industry is recording its highest production ever of commercial communications satellites and military special-purpose satellites. Hughes Aircraft, TRW, Ford Aerospace, Rockwell and Lockheed all are major producers of satellites in California, representing more than 50% of the nation's production capacity. West Coast firms employ 66.1% of all space industry workers.

Missile and ordnance production at the handful of firms in Los Angeles is soaring. Hughes Aircraft, TRW and General Dynamics are leaders in strategic, tactical and cruise missiles, areas that have all received huge increases in funding.

Finally, the aerospace electronics area is growing faster than any other part of the defense budget, posing a challenge to the Pentagon's efforts just to find enough companies capable of bidding for new contracts. Hughes, Rockwell, TRW and Northrop are all leaders in this area, as well.

The greatest employment demand at these contractors is for engineers of virtually every discipline, but with particular demand in aeronautical, electronic and mechanical engineering.

Engineers, scientists and technicians account for almost 25% of the industry's work force, according to the Aerospace Industries Assn. of America, a trade group. In addition, 47.3% of all engineers and scientists in the aerospace industry are on the West Coast, while 49.5% of all technicians are on the West Coast.

Nationwide, the aerospace industry's demand for scientists and engineers has soared by 19% in the past two years, according to the association. Such demand is outstripping the supply of engineers, especially in certain key specialties, such as electronics engineers with training in optical systems, signal processing and satellite communications, according to Sandy Lechtick, president of National Recruiters Corp., a defense industry head-hunting firm. Other sought-after skills are in aircraft structure design and stress analysis, he says.

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