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Aircraft Maker Plagued by Labor Shortage : Douglas Is Tooling Up on Overtime

June 16, 1989|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | Times Staff Writer

McDonnell Douglas production workers in Long Beach this year have taken home weekly paychecks for as much as $2,000 as they took part in a massive overtime effort on the aircraft production lines.

The firm's Douglas Aircraft unit has fallen behind schedule on all four of its major aircraft development and production programs as a result of a wide range of engineering and manufacturing problems.

Overtime, which has meant 84-hour weeks for some workers, is a major culprit in the losses Douglas recently posted for the quarter, according to a recent securities report of Sanford Bernstein & Co., a New York brokerage.

Although overtime is common in the aerospace industry, large amounts of it are considered to be an inefficient way of dealing with delays. But with commercial and government customers breathing down its neck, Douglas is forced to show that it is doing everything possible to make up for lost time, according to a Douglas supervisor who requested anonymity.

One particular area of heavy overtime is the building of manufacturing tools for two important new programs, the Air Force C-17 cargo jet and the MD-11 jetliner. Building these aircraft tools has been hampered by shortages of skilled workers known in the aircraft industry as jig and fixture builders.

Assembly jigs are massive, multimillion-dollar steel structures that hold large sections of a fuselage in place while they are being riveted together. The C-17 assembly jigs, or A Js, as they are called in the factory, represent some of the most advanced tooling in the aerospace industry.

Douglas has been desperately seeking jig builders for more than a year. To cope with the labor shortage in recent months, at least some jig builders have worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day--on a grueling schedule known in the plant as "seven twelves." The pace has slackened in recent weeks, but more seven-twelves reportedly are scheduled.

48-Hour Work Week for 1989 Predicted

"People turn into zombies when they work that many hours," the Douglas supervisor said. "Can you imagine standing in one place for 12 hours with a drill going bzzz-bzzz-bzzz ? And it goes on like that day after day, without any break."

Overtime costs appear to be putting a significant burden on Douglas, which lost $66 million in its first quarter this year.

Sanford Bernstein analyst Suzanne Patrick estimated in a report last month that Douglas will have an average overtime rate of 20% for 1989, which equates to an average work week of 48 hours over the entire work force. Considering the overtime premiums paid hourly employees, that means the Douglas payroll would rise by much more than 20%.

Bruce Lee, regional director of the United Auto Workers, which represents 16,000 hourly workers at Douglas, said there are no contractual limits on overtime, though Sunday overtime is not mandatory.

"The company loses a lot of money in those overtime situations," Lee said. "A worker's efficiency goes to hell."

Douglas has scoured the nation for jig builders, but qualified craftsmen are hard to find, according to James Vince, an employment manager at Douglas.

"If 15 or 20 jig builders walked in our door today, I would shine their shoes," Vince said. The company has spent $1 million on several drives to recruit jig builders, he noted.

"We have beaten the bushes of every aerospace city, automobile plant and shipyard throughout this country and have exhausted ourselves," Vince said.

The shortage has become so acute that Douglas has hired about 250 British jig builders. It has flown them and their families to Long Beach and is paying for their temporary quarters in a new, upscale hotel.

"That is unusual for us to do for an hourly employee," Vince said. "That is about what we do for a salaried engineer or manager."

Complaints Voiced

And some regular employees have objected sharply to the use of foreign labor on the Air Force C-17.

"How can they bring in foreign workers and pay them with American taxpayer dollars?" one demanded. "I'd like to see the company jerk their visas and send them back to Britain."

The employee said that the British workers have no experience with the most modern jig-building methods, which use precision laser measuring equipment. He added that at least some of the British workers have had to use their time at Douglas updating their skills to meet the company's standards.

But Vince, the Douglas employment manager, said the British workers, who account for nearly half of the 450 jig builders at Douglas, are "excellent."

He said Douglas employs about 450 jig builders and has another 100 working as contract laborers, or job shoppers.

High Pay, Long Hours

Douglas pays jig builders $12 to $16 an hour. The job shoppers are paid up to $21.50 an hour but do not receive vacation time or other benefits. With overtime premiums, which might include double pay on Sunday, a job shopper can earn $2,279 a week. The British recruits were brought in as regular employees.

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