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Aerospace manufacturing jobs are here, skilled workers are not

David Castro is a student at Hawthorne High School of Manufacturing and Engineering. Castro is talking to KPCC's Shereen Marisol Meraji about the metal tubes he's cutting for a robot the student's designed.
David Castro is a student at Hawthorne High School of Manufacturing and Engineering. Castro is talking to KPCC's Shereen Marisol Meraji about the metal tubes he's cutting for a robot the student's designed.
Bill Youngblood
David Castro is a student at Hawthorne High School of Manufacturing and Engineering. Castro is talking to KPCC's Shereen Marisol Meraji about the metal tubes he's cutting for a robot the student's designed.
Robert Higgins is a machinist at Alcoa Fastening System's Torrance facility. He's been working for the company for 4 years, but as a machinist for more than 30 years.
Shereen Marisol Meraji

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Owe Carlsson is sick and tired of hearing that to find manufacturing jobs you should look east, far east. “No, manufacturing is not all in China,” says the exasperated 73 year-old engineer. “The manufacturing base in the L.A. area is phenomenal, but if we do not get fresh blood into our industry, yes, those jobs will disappear.”

Carlsson is a Senior Principal Engineer at Alcoa Fastening Systems. The company makes nuts and bolts for airplanes under the umbrella of the multinational aluminum producer, Alcoa. Eighty percent of all the nuts and bolts for airplanes are made right here in Southern California.

Survival is not mandatory

On a tour of Alcoa Fastening System’s Torrance facility, Carlsson stops to admire a mountain of plastic bins filled with tiny aluminum parts in jewel tones. “When you look out the window of an aircraft and look out onto the wings and you see all those little screws, on the inside is invariably one of these,” he says.

Carlsson laments that most of the high-skilled machinists making those turquoise, emerald, and copper colored jewels of the aerospace industry have gray hair and, like him, are long overdue for retirement. “I run into operators, retirement age, they say, ‘Where are the young people, I want to train someone!’" says Carlsson, adding that those workers "are seeing that the next generation is not there, they’re not stepping up.”

Carlsson’s office is a Zen-like refuge from the noisy shop floor and visitors are greeted, first, by a black and white framed portrait of Albert Einstein. (Carlsson calls him Uncle Al.)

Carlsson’s also a fan of inspirational quotes; one of his favorites is written on his whiteboard. It’s from William Edwards Deming, the American consultant best known for helping revolutionize Japan’s manufacturing sector in the 1950s.

It says: “It is not necessary to change, survival is not mandatory.”

Carlsson worries that if California doesn't change the way its schools educate future workers, aerospace manufacturing in Southern California will die.

“We get so many people knocking on our door, but they have absolutely nothing they can bring to the table," he says. "They don’t have the basics of adding or subtracting. It is catastrophic. Those are things they should have learned in school.”

Skills in demand

Lucas Pacheco teaches at Hawthorne High's School of Manufacturing and Engineering. The public school is just a couple of miles away from the most powerful aerospace companies in the world. “Northrop Grumman and Boeing and Raytheon are all asking us to make sure that we provide them with a workforce that’s skilled enough to walk in the door and get jobs,” says Pacheco.

According to California’s Employment Development Department, the median income for an aerospace engineer is $53 an hour, $19 an hour for skilled machinists. EDD predicted a 12 percent increase in the demand for aerospace engineers between 2008 and 2018.

But Pacheco says the prospect of a job sometime in the future isn’t enough to get high school kids psyched about manufacturing.

Bubbly sophomore Gesenia Grejeda says she was wooed away from the visual and performing arts academy on campus after watching the manufacturing students race mousetrap cars they designed and built. “I was hooked,” says Grejeda, “and I was like, ‘This is what I want to do!”

“I want to be a manufacturer,” says Grejeda’s classmate, David Castro. ”I want to work with machines and design things that we’re going to be using in our lives.”

Castro cuts metal tubes on a computerized machine in Hawthorne High’s metal shop, one of the few left in California. He talks about his dream of creating machines that will make life easier for the disabled.

Castro says he gets to school at 6 in the morning and leaves around 9 or 10 at night because making parts for student designed projects “is really fun.”

School administrators say 85 percent of the teens at Hawthorne High’s Manufacturing and Engineering school are considered at-risk; their families can’t afford college without help, and don't speak English at home.

“My mother barely made it through elementary school,” says William Valverde, an alumnus of the program.

”We’re not pushed toward education in the first place, much less are we expected to win the science fair or be a part of the professional Society of Manufacturing Engineers before we’re old enough to vote.”

Valverde now studies engineering at Cal State Northridge. He says he never would have considered that path without Lucas Pacheco and the manufacturing academy at Hawthorne.

Pilot programs

The Society of Manufacturing Engineers, a network of professional manufacturers founded during the Great Depression, also sees the school’s potential. The group recently gave Hawthorne High $16,000 for more equipment and an after-school program.

Members of the SME know workers in their industry are graying. So the group is backing high-school programs that encourage teens to study engineering, and funding a reality TV-show pilot called "Edge Factor."

The show's trailer features a narrator; in a booming baritone, he intones, “For over 200 years man has been surrounding themselves with machines; they shaped our history and our future.”

Now Hawthorne is shaping the future. SpaceX, founded in 2002 by entrepreneur Elon Musk, is a private rocket and satellite company gearing up for a test launch to the space station in the coming months. One thousand of its 1,600 employees work in Hawthorne.

“A hunk of metal comes into our factory in Hawthorne and a rocket goes out,” says Kirstin Grantham, the communications director at SpaceX.

“On our website there are over 200 jobs posted today, we’re looking for engineers who can help us design this next generation of rockets and spacecraft, we’re looking for technicians who can help us with the assembly process. We want the best and the brightest minds.”

Grantham says recruiters are working around the clock to find them and warns other aerospace companies that SpaceX is not above stealing talent.

Wouldn't it be nice, if they didn't have to?