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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA Job Market : PART ONE: JOB PROSPECTS : Blue-Collar Employment : Gains in light manufacturing are offsetting losses in heavy industry

May 17, 1987|NANCY YOSHIHARA | Times Staff Writer

Despite the much-chronicled decline of heavy industry in America, the blue-collar labor market still has pockets of strength in Southern California and the rest of the nation.

In fact, overall employment in manufacturing is holding steady locally. The area's construction industry has been even stronger, although its short-term future hinges heavily on the direction of interest rates.

Not that all local blue-collar industries are doing well. What's happening is that construction and booming light manufacturing businesses, such as apparel and printing, are offsetting the job losses in other fields. Indeed, employment prospects in major local industries such as aerospace, electronics and machinery manufacturing are no better than mixed.

On balance, average manufacturing employment last year in Southern California was 1,358,800, up 800 workers, or less than one-tenth of 1%, from 1985's level. Nationally, average manufacturing employment totaled 19.2 million, down 128,000, or 0.7%.

Average construction employment last year was up 4.4% to 287,000 in Southern California and up 5.8% to 4.96 million nationally.

As the makeup of major blue-collar employers changes in Southern California, so do the kinds of skills required to get the best jobs. Sally the Riveter's job skills just won't cut it in a high-tech world.

New technology has kept many local industries competitive. Gone, for example, is the old letterpress printing equipment. Instead, there are advanced offset presses. As a result, there is a whole new category of workers who service the latest in printing equipment.

In the apparel business, many workers use computer-assisted equipment to size and cut fabric. And as cars increasingly rely on electronics, auto mechanics need more sophisticated skills.

"There's certainly an increase in what you need to know," said Martin Wolf, division chairman at the Airport College Center of West Los Angeles College, which trains aircraft mechanics and avionics technicians.

"They have to at least know how to interface with computers," Wolf added. "And people have to be able to read and write."

Here are the employment prospects in some of the area's major blue-collar industries.

AEROSPACE

In the aerospace business, the job picture varies widely from plant to plant. Major projects are nearing completion at some firms, and new projects aren't yet in hand.

"There are lot more companies vying for a piece of the pie, but the pie has shrunk," said Sandford A. Lechtick, chief executive of National Recruiters Corp. in Canoga Park.

Rockwell International, for example, added 10,000 workers to its payroll between 1982 and 1985 in Southern California. Now, however, it's simply looking to hold its employment steady as its B-1 bomber production winds down.

On the other hand, Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach is expected to continue hiring more than 100 people a week throughout the year.

The company is hiring structural assemblers, electrical harness builders and fixture builders, among others. Wages range from $7 to $14 an hour, depending on the job and the worker's experience.

Wolf said that "demand for aircraft mechanics right now is just fantastic" because many experienced employees are retiring.

Airline mechanics can start at $25,000 a year, or $12 an hour, and with experience can go up to $40,000 to $45,000 annually. Wolf said avionics technicians are also in good demand, with wages about the same as for mechanics.

APPAREL

The local "rag trade" is booming, making the apparel industry the third-largest manufacturing employer in Los Angeles County. (Electrical equipment and supplies manufacturing is No. 1, followed by the aircraft business.)

The Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce reports that employment in the apparel trade rose to a new high of 82,000 in the county in 1986. The county's 2,900 manufacturing shops are primarily small operations, and only six local plants employ 500 or more workers.

Most sewing machine operators are immigrants, said James A. Weilenman, director of personnel at Sirena Inc., a ladies swimwear and sportswear maker in South El Monte. Although sewing machine operators are guaranteed only the minimum wage of $3.35 an hour, some make as much as $10 an hour at Sirena because they are paid on a piecework basis, Weilenman said.

Weilenman said operators are easy to find, but there is a shortage of design and pattern makers. Sharon Tate, assistant dean at the Fashion Center at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, said a first-pattern maker produces the pattern used to make a sample garment.

Tate said a beginning first-pattern maker might earn $150 to $300 a week. An experienced first-pattern maker could make as much as $15 an hour, or $600 for a 40-hour week.

AUTOMOTIVE

In car-crazy Southern California, auto mechanics are in constant demand.

"Cars are beginning to be very complicated. The day of the garage do-it-yourselfer is coming to an end," said Jose Cortez, assistant dean of automotive technology at Trade Tech.

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