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COUNTY REPORT / Rebuilding the Economy : Businesses Adapting to a New Climate : Labor: Workers displaced by the devastation of the past four years are shifting gears, striking out on their own or transferring old job skills to new professions.

May 22, 1994|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three years ago, with defense dollars drying up and the aerospace industry in full sputter, APS Systems traded its swords for plowshares to avoid being ground up by a peacetime economy.

In the same warehouse where it had helped tune the nation's military engine, the Oxnard aerospace firm began building electric buses. While a neighboring defense contractor shut its doors, APS was busy designing the first battery-powered school bus in the country.

Even as Ventura County was losing about one of every five of its defense-related jobs over the past four years, the changes at APS helped put engineers, machinists and welders to work.

And the same phenomenon of change that gave new life to companies throughout the county was also working at the personal level--as thousands of residents adjusted to the troubled economic times.

For Newbury Park resident John Thatcher, change meant finding a new career. Thatcher will be unemployed in August, when the Canoga Park aerospace company that he joined straight out of high school moves out of state. But, as others, Thatcher is changing with the times, preparing to transfer his skills to the computer industry or another evolving field.

"With my age and where I am in life, they're not jamming many people into the job market," said Thatcher, 51. "You learn to adapt and you just pray that the economy is going to take an upshot."

That might, in fact, be happening. After sliding headlong into the depths of recession, Ventura County's economy is rebuilding and showing signs of recovery.

There are over 12,000 more county residents working today than there were a year ago. Housing sales are climbing, while unemployment continues to dip. Commercial buildings are filling, with vacancy rates plunging to some of the lowest levels since before the great slump of the early '90s.

Building activity is on the rise, as real estate speculators look into the future and for the first time in years don't cringe at what they see.

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These are some of the classic measurements of economic health. But the local economy also can be measured by how it has adapted to the devastation of the past four years.

In many ways, Ventura County's economy is being reinvented. New business opportunities are surfacing even as the old ones fold up or move away.

Workers displaced by the economic downturn are shifting gears, striking out on their own or transferring old job skills into new professions. Many companies have survived the hard times by overhauling the way they do business, tying into expanding technologies and service fields that promise to rebuild the economy and lead it into the 21st Century.

And there is growing enthusiasm on the potential for increased traffic at the expanding Port of Hueneme, the possible development of a commercial airport at Point Mugu Naval Air Station and the proposed construction of a state university near Camarillo.

So just how far along is the local recovery?

At a business gathering last month hosted by the Ventura County Economic Development Assn., association board member Bill Simmons summed it up this way: "If there was a 12-step process to (economic) recovery, we would be at Step 1: We now realize we have a problem."

Others measure the recovery by how businesses have survived the carnage of recent years.

"It looks like the business climate is at least beginning to solidify its losses," said Mark Schniepp, director of UC Santa Barbara's Economic Forecast Project. "It is a turnaround, but it's nothing you should pop champagne bottles over yet."

Still, even a slight upturn is a welcome break from the four-year barrage of bleak economic news.

Since 1990, the county's unemployment rate has more than doubled, soaring to a high of 10.4% before settling at its current rate of 8.4%. Retail sales fell 15% while the median housing price plummeted $65,000, a 24% decrease.

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In the past four years, Ventura County has lost more than 10,000 jobs, resulting in a massive restructuring of the county's work places.

Over the past two decades, there had been a steady increase in the number of firms employing 250 workers or more. But starting in 1991, during the heart of the recession, the number of large firms dropped off dramatically while the number of firms employing fewer than 50 people increased.

"A drastic reduction and downsizing is happening," explained Jamshid Damooei, an economics professor at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.

"It says to me that what we are losing are high-tech wages and that's going to have an effect on the purchasing power in the county."

To be sure, the county's diversified economy has helped it ward off hard times better than many of its neighbors.

Agriculture remains one of the county's strongest industries, even though last year's $722-million crop was one of the poorest in years. The Navy remains the county's top employer, putting to work nearly 15,000 civilian and uniformed personnel at Point Mugu and Port Hueneme.

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