The aerospace job applicants come early in the morning, forming long lines that snake through the lobby of the modern suburban office building.
Amid pastel furniture and cheery office decor, they wait patiently for a "prescreening" that will determine in a few minutes whether they merit further consideration.
This is the scene day after day at Douglas Aircraft Co.'s new employment center in Lakewood, where more than 43,000 people have come so far this year looking for a job. On one morning after Douglas won a big Air Force contract, 16,000 people lined up outside the employment office.
McDonnell Douglas is hiring, and the aerospace community is responding. The Douglas Aircraft unit in Long Beach hires 180 new factory and professional employees each week for its sprawling complex of aircraft facilities in Long Beach and Torrance. Douglas added 4,000 new jobs over the past year, not including hiring for turnover. Its work force totals 28,900.
Douglas is unique, however. The big aerospace buildup that came with the Reagan Administration's defense policies has largely spent itself, and now contractors are mainly concerned with holding on to the business that they picked up a few years ago. The defense procurement budget, after adjusting for inflation, is off by more than 15% over the last two years.
Nonetheless, Southern California aerospace employers are doing better than they had expected in heading off a major (or even a minor) downturn in business. That's partly due to a huge backlog of federal funds that remains in the long pipeline from Washington to the defense industry.
But it also reflects a series of successful contract wins by California aerospace companies. In addition, a strong commercial jetliner market is helping to pick up slack just as the military aircraft market is leveling off.
Personnel executives for a number of aerospace firms in Southern California say they had expected the market to be very weak this year, but that they are now experiencing difficulty finding enough qualified people.
"In June, we signed a major production contract with the Marines and Air Force that means we will add 350 people to our payroll," said Larry N. Colson, vice president of human resources at Litton Data Systems in Van Nuys. "I went into this employment effort thinking it would be a soft market. That isn't what we found."
That sentiment is echoed by executive and professional search firms that have a broad view of the market.
"A year ago, my outlook was pessimistic," said Sanford A. Lechtick, chief executive of National Recruiters Corp. in Woodland Hills. "A lot of people, though, are hiring in both the defense and commercial aerospace sectors. The pie has gotten smaller, but some of these companies have gotten better" at winning competitions.
Indeed, the long-term fortunes of the Southern California aerospace industry took a leap late last year, when two prime contracts for the Air Force's Advanced Tactical Fighter were awarded to Northrop and Lockheed, ensuring that the region will get a large share of that $60-billion monster program. No matter which firm wins, ATF is likely to create well over 10,000 new jobs.
The potential for growth in spacecraft projects could develop into a major boon for California as well. About 66% of all U.S. spacecraft are built on the West Coast.
Two Southern California firms, Rockwell International in Downey and McDonnell Douglas Astronautics in Huntington Beach, are competing for the largest share of the Space Station program. Contracts will be awarded later this year. The National Aerospace Plane, the so-called Orient Express, has five contractors in competition, three of which are in Southern California.
The Strategic Defense Initiative has proven lucrative for California as well. Although SDI projects are individually smaller and less visible than many Pentagon efforts, the overall program is already so large that several contractors have set up special divisions to conduct SDI work. The majority of the top 10 SDI contractors are in California.
Rockwell is building another space shuttle as a result of the disaster last year that destroyed the Challenger.
All of these programs are helping to offset those early Reagan Administration programs that are now winding down. Total aerospace employment in Los Angeles County was 310,000 in July, up about 3% from a year ago, according to the state Department of Employment Development.
In the important aircraft segment, employment was 136,000, up from 129,800 a year ago. This was despite major layoffs at Rockwell's North American Aircraft unit, which lost 5,442 jobs in Los Angeles on the B-1 bomber program. Employment in missiles and spacecraft increased to 18,500 from 17,500 last year.
No downturn is expected in aircraft employment, which is projected to grow statewide from the current 176,000 jobs to 182,200 by next year, according to David Hensley, director of the California model at the UCLA Business Forecasting Project.