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A Fair Chance at Jobs : Laid-Off Aerospace Workers Seek New Opportunities

April 23, 1992|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the end of a long queue that extended down a sweat-inducing, narrow, dark hallway in a Downey hotel, Ralph Garcia waited patiently Wednesday--wearing a blank look, a short-sleeve shirt and a necktie.

It was the 12th aerospace job fair that Garcia, a quality-control engineer in his mid-50s, had attended since Rockwell International laid him off last April. After a 29-year career at Rockwell, in which he worked on the Apollo moon ship and the space shuttle, it wasn't quite where Garcia expected to find himself.

"It hasn't been going too well," he admitted while waiting to speak with representatives of Lockheed's Skunk Works, who had a few jobs to fill. "I have sent out 215 resumes all over the country. But you can't ask for a job looking (depressed). You have to bite your lip and smile."

When the doors opened to the job fair, sponsored by Rockwell to help its former employees find work, about 2,000 workers streamed in. They came dressed in their best suits and dresses, though they could have saved themselves the bother. The crowded hotel rooms were at times as humid as an athletic locker room.

The job fair attracted 53 corporations, many of which said they had jobs for the right candidates. Ironically, even aerospace firms such as Douglas Aircraft and Hughes Aircraft were there to hire people, though they have been laying off some of their own workers.

In the brutal reality of the aerospace business, the firms are adjusting what they call their "skills mix" and along the way trying to find a few gem-quality scientists and engineers lost in the masses.

Loral Corp., which operates a division in Pasadena, came with as many as 30 engineering job openings that pay up to $90,000 per year. Hughes was looking for as many as 20 engineers to work on the F-22 jet fighter's computer. Lockheed, which seemed to draw the longest line, had about 50 openings for engineers and software developers--no doubt for its latest secret aircraft program.

Douglas, which has laid off more than 12,000 of its own workers, said it had jobs for engineers and assemblers. The Douglas representatives were simply taking resumes and had accumulated a stack about five inches thick.

The former Rockwell employees endured the indignities of their situation well, and most said they appreciated their former employer's efforts. At the very least, many renewed old acquaintances with the often repeated words, "Oh, you were laid off too."

Sima Mor, a quality engineer on the space shuttle program, said she is giving herself six months to find a new job.

"It was a big shock," she remarked. "I was nominated the engineer of the year at Rockwell, and my picture was in the newspaper. I thought I could have completed my career at Rockwell. I didn't want to be discouraged like this."

Although Mor said she wanted to get out of the aerospace industry, at least one worker came to the job fair to get back in.

In 1981, Wayne Sims was living in rural Kentucky and decided to mail his resume to Rockwell. When he received word that the firm wanted to interview him, he packed up his car and told his wife that they were moving to California, he recalled.

By 1991, Sims had worked his way up to project manager for the space shuttle's extended-duration program, but shortly afterward he was laid off.

"I couldn't see much future with aerospace, the way it was going, so I decided to get out of the corporate world and do something of my own," he said. Sims opened a Cajun chicken restaurant in Ontario, but after a year of working seven days a week, 16 hours a day--and not earning much profit--he wants to get back into the aerospace industry.

"It has its ups and downs, but I want back in," Sims said.

But if job security is what surplus aerospace workers want, they should consider the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, said Cynthia Baxter, a prison system recruiter at the job fair.

"We don't worry about being unemployed, because people are committing crimes every day," Baxter said. "The Cold War may be over, but this one is still going. In fact, it is probably going to get worse."

The United States operates 64 federal prisons, and Baxter said there are plenty of jobs for computer specialists and electronics technicians, as well as other highly trained workers. The pay may not be much. Medical doctors are paid the most and they receive $45,000 annually, Baxter said.

For many of the workers, the jobs skills they refined over their careers seem better suited to a world still locked in a Cold War. Gene Currier designed cryptographic equipment at Rockwell for 15 years and before that spent 26 years with the Central Intelligence Agency.

"I have found that when you send a resume to a company, most of the time you don't hear back from them. And when you do, they just say they don't have anything," Currier said.

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