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A 'HUGE' MISTAKE : Carrying Too Much Dead Weight Too Long Turned Out to Be Too Much

August 16, 1992|Sandra Tsing Loh | Sandra Tsing Loh is a Los Angeles-based writer and performance artist.

So Hughes Aircraft Co. is finally "right-sizing." That's the '90s word for laying off 9,000 workers and closing down 92 company facilities.

Now, to some, this fact may seem like just one more piece of corporate wreckage plummeting through the frosty economic air. But to me, the demise of Hughes Aircraft--or, as we natives used to call it, "Huge Aircraft"--is major news. It marks the end of a Southern California way of life, a generational world view, an era.

When I graduated from Santa Monica High School in 1979, many of my classmates and I automatically assumed we'd go to college, pick a science, any science, and wind up in engineering. We never gave other options a second thought. If Dustin Hoffman's key to success was plastics, then ours was aerospace !

Even today, when I hear that word, I see this omnipresent gray mist, a natural force that blankets and protects my family and all the other aerospace families. It was our destiny as well as, perhaps, our curse: After all, none of our kind had ever escaped to become dancers, archeologists or yacht-builders.

My father had been at Hughes for as long as I could remember: first at Hughes Research in Malibu, then at Hughes' Electro-Optical and Data Systems Group in El Segundo. My best friend's dad worked at Hughes Radar Systems, another's at Hughes Space and Communications. Soon, my brother, too, was swallowed up by a subsector subgroup of some subcorporate subdivision.

Like clockwork, I earned a physics degree in 1983 and headed down to Culver City. I was awed by Hughes' sheer hugeness. It was a kind of multi-site, industrial Disney World that seemed to have its own airports, shuttle buses and farmland.

My tenure on the technical staff in the Algorithm Development Department of the Advanced Tactical Programs Division was largely spent hunched in my cubicle, reading James Michener's "Hawaii." After spending four years pursuing a degree in which I had no interest or ability and for which I would be repaying student loans past the year 2000, I was exhausted.

Also on unofficial hiatus was my co-worker Ed. A distant nephew of one of Hughes' CEOs, Ed joined the rest of us in speculating how on earth he, an economics major, had wound up there. He was computer-illiterate, so he earned his $550 a week by fetching coffee and doughnuts and sharing interesting bits from the L.A. Times. As long as we didn't distract Hughes officials from their more pressing task of stuffing Department of Defense cash into suitcases, they didn't seem to mind.

Well, those were the good old days, when Hughes Aircraft was privately held by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute--and therefore didn't have to show much profit. Since then, of course, peace has broken out all over, and General Motors has taken over the Hughes helm.

It is this last development that has some current employees worried. "After all, look how well GM did in the car business," says a software engineer named Richard. He first joined Hughes in 1979, after getting a chemistry degree at Caltech. Though he had planned to go to graduate school after a year, he's been at Hughes ever since. "The money's addicting," he says. "You treat yourself well."

But Hughes' days as the country club of aerospace are over. Richard says he now sees endless memos: about full health benefits being modified to a "cafeteria" of choices, with everything not quite adding up to what you had before; about cash "matching" funds being replaced by shares of sadly devalued corporate stock; about Hughes' in-house security guards being replaced by outside firms (a move once deemed a security risk). Hughes is even getting stingy with parking stickers. And as for everyone's Christmas turkey: "We got it last year," Richard says, "but in '92, who knows?"

For my part, I removed my dead weight from the Hughes payroll back in 1984 and went on to flounder--for far less pay--in other fields. In retrospect, I'm sorry I didn't leave sooner. Maybe Hughes' decline could have been held off a few minutes longer.

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