Business & Economy

Aerospace industry's past and future meet at Virgin Galactic career fair

Willie Ortega and his daughter Stephanie hand in their resumes at the Virgin Galactic jobs fair
Willie Ortega and his daughter Stephanie hand in their resumes at the Virgin Galactic jobs fair
Brian Watt
Willie Ortega and his daughter Stephanie hand in their resumes at the Virgin Galactic jobs fair
Job-seekers enter the new Virgin Galactic facility in Long Beach
Brian Watt
Willie Ortega and his daughter Stephanie hand in their resumes at the Virgin Galactic jobs fair
Job-seekers lined up according to area of interest or expertise at the Virgin Galactic jobs fair.
Brian Watt/KPCC
Willie Ortega and his daughter Stephanie hand in their resumes at the Virgin Galactic jobs fair
Grant and Mary Workman met while working as mechanics at McDonnell Douglas, which merged with Boeing in 1997.
Brian Watt


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Thousands of people lined up Saturday for a jobs fair event at Virgin Galactic's brand new facility in Long Beach.

The company is looking for aerospace workers to build its new Launcher One vehicle, which will carry small commercial and government satellites into orbit.  

"Our goal here for the career fair is to hire about 100 people,"  Virgin Galactic President Steve Isakowitz told KPCC.  "Then, as we hope to get contracts, as we start building this rocket, start testing this rocket and start increasing our production rate, we'll continue to hire and expand."

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia and U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (R-Costa Mesa) were among the elected officials who turned out for a brief ribbon cutting that same morning, but the line that began forming in the parking lot before sunrise was for work, not ceremony.

At times, the event took on the feel of a huge family reunion, with many job-seekers reconnecting with colleagues from past aerospace gigs. Grant and Mary Workman, a married couple who met while working as mechanics at McDonnell Douglas in the early 1990s, waited in line with other former members of their team. Both said they worked for 30 years as aircraft mechanics before L.A.'s aerospace industry declined.

"Depressing," said Mary Workman. "To watch everything go downhill, to disappear."

"We both got hit a year apart," said her husband, referring to their layoffs from Boeing, which merged with McDonnell Douglas in 1997. "She got laid off in 1999, I got laid off in 2000."  

They went back to school and found other work, but Mary Workman said there were some tough times.

"We almost lost our home here in Lakewood,"  she said.  At age 66, she remains eager to work in aerospace, but hasn't since 2009.

Virgin Galactic President Steve Isakowitz said his company was looking for employees with all levels of experience, from new college graduates to engineers with decades on the job.  "Building a rocket is not easy, and to have that kind of unique skill and to have a veteran at doing it, they're welcome, too," he said. "We’re excited about the skill base that exists in this part of Los Angeles."

Virgin Galactic opened its facility at the Long Beach Airport.  It is located across the runway from the plant where thousands of workers once assembled the Boeing C-17.  Just weeks ago, the remaining Boeing workers completed the joining of major components on the last C-17 Globemaster aircraft to be produced there. The plant is expected to shut down this summer. 

Willie Ortega, laid off five years ago from the C-17 program, stood in line at Virgin Galactic, optimistic that the company was part of the future of the region's aerospace industry. "I think aerospace has shifted to smaller companies than Boeing," he said.  

Ortega had driven in from La Palma with his daughter, Stephanie, who recently earned a mechanical engineering degree at Cal-State Long Beach.

"Seeing my dad over in the industry for about 30 years, I’ve always been around it," Stephanie Ortega said. "I was able to walk into the C-17 , so it’s just been a whole part of my life."

Barbara Levine, Senior Regional Manager with the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation attended the ribbon-cutting and called the opportunities at Virgin Galactic a "great talent matching."

"Many people are losing jobs at no fault of their own, just because of the end of a program, so this is a boom for the entire region," she said. "It's Long Beach and beyond."