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Defense Pullouts Will Batter Workers, Cities : Relocation: Hughes officials are not sure how many at Pomona or Rancho Cucamonga will move to Tucson. Local economies will suffer.

April 01, 1993|ANDREW LEPAGE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

EAST SAN GABRIEL VALLEY — Five years ago Carol Neblett was one of about 11,000 workers earning a comfortable living at the Pomona and Rancho Cucamonga weapons plants now owned by Hughes Missile Systems Co.

Today Neblett is one of 3,500 surviving employees who face unemployment as one of the largest private employers in the San Gabriel Valley decided this week to leave town by the end of 1994 after years of layoffs.

As she left Hughes' Pomona plant Tuesday afternoon, Neblett clung to a sense of humor while wondering aloud where a manufacturing engineer could find another job in Southern California that would pay $40,000 a year.

"I don't hold out great hopes that I'll be very marketable at my age," said Neblett, 59. "So I've done a survey and determined Home Depot is the best place to get a shopping cart."

The cart represents her worst fear: that after 10 years with Hughes, she'll end up homeless. She doubts that the company will offer her a job at its Tucson plant, where the company's missile operations will be consolidated by the end of next year.

Before this week, some Hughes workers and local officials held out hope that Hughes would retain at least part of its engineering operation at the Pomona and Rancho Cucamonga sites. Last fall Hughes announced plans to cut costs by relocating all missile production to Tucson but continued to study whether it would be cost-effective to leave engineering operations behind at one or more of its California sites.

Hughes announced Monday that it will phase out all of its missile and other weapons operations--engineering and manufacturing--in California by the end of 1994. Officials said it is not clear now how many of Hughes' 2,000 employees in Pomona or 1,500 in Rancho Cucamonga will be offered work at the Tucson plant.

Employee performance reviews are under way, and competition for the Tucson jobs will be tough: The company plans to cut its work force of roughly 12,000 employees to about 8,000 by the end of 1994.

Hughes Chairman C. Michael Armstrong said Monday that the decision to move the jobs was based primarily on the economic need to locate engineering and manufacturing to a single site. However, he lambasted California's business climate and said lack of political action to solve the problems contributed to the move.

The announcement is a blow to Pomona, Diamond Bar, Claremont and other East San Gabriel Valley cities that are home to many Hughes workers and that for decades have grown in part because of plentiful defense industry jobs.

Hughes' pullout will deprive Pomona of its second-largest employer, Pomona Valley Hospital ranking first with more than 2,000 employees.

Today, Hughes employees wonder how they can possibly make as much money--$13 an hour or more for hourly production workers--elsewhere in Southern California's sagging economy. Many fear months or years on unemployment. Some are bitter because they think that they won't be offered a job at the Tucson plant.

This week, says one longtime employee of the Pomona plant, "the mood is very somber inside (the plant). Since Hughes acquired us from General Dynamics (last year), I've felt like we've been stepchildren who were cast aside and now finally thrown away."

"I've got a sign made up: 'Will Work for Food,' " Pomona weapons inspector John Sullivan said. "I'm going to try to stay in Southern California but I want out of the defense industry. I've been remodeling houses, but that business is hurting too."

Local economic development officials hope that Hughes workers will be committed to staying put. Reggie Webb, president of the Pomona Economic Development Corp., lamented Hughes' pullout because the defense industry had brought Pomona and neighboring cities stable families--homeowners with a stake in the community.

Also, he said, many small businesses such as restaurants, beauty salons and other shops rely heavily on the thousands of Hughes employees who frequent their stores.

San Gabriel Valley economic development experts hope that commercial industries such as electrical cars can provide employment for the Hughes workers who manufacture missiles and gun systems for ships. And they want to lure new employers to the 160-acre Navy-owned portion of Hughes' Pomona operation and a 15-acre site next door that Hughes will put up for sale.

"We think there's a real good chance of finding transfer technologies, but whether displaced aerospace workers can be absorbed soon enough is unknown," said Marco Brown, executive director of the San Gabriel Valley Commerce and Cities Consortium.

At Cal Poly Pomona, administrators plan to change their engineering curriculum to reflect downsizing in the defense industry. A few years ago, the college regularly placed many of its engineering graduates at local defense plants.

"The prospects of our engineering majors today will undoubtedly be impaired not only because of the shutdown of the Pomona plant but because of the downsizing of the industry in general," Cal Poly President Bob Suzuki said.

The university is developing a certificate program in "transfer technology." Aerospace engineers and others will be taught how to find ways to transfer defense-related technologies to commercial applications and then how to develop and market those applications.

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