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Space Jobs Scarce for Laid-Off Shuttle Workers

July 8, 2011 | WMFE It's been more than seven years since President George W. Bush announced the end of the Space Shuttle program. Since then, local leaders have been able to lure about 1,600 new aerospace jobs to the Brevard County area to help absorb some of the displaced shuttle workforce. But the total number of shuttle-related layoffs is expected to approach 9,000. The gap between those two numbers has some people questioning the future of the space industry on the Space Coast.

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On the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center, in the shadow of an exhibit of old NASA rockets, sits a small, nondescript office where the future Florida’s aerospace industry is being crafted.  This is the headquarters of a state-funded agency called Space Florida, whose sole purpose is to bring new space companies and opportunities to the sunshine state.

“We’ve known that the termination of the shuttle program has been coming for a long time,” says Space Florida President Frank DiBello, “and I think the area has been preparing for it.”

But has it been doing enough?

Even as the shuttle’s retirement loomed large, state funding for Space Florida fell from $7 million in 2007 to $3.8 million in 2009.

During that time, Florida space boosters were spending more of their time and energy lobbying NASA to speed up its plan to replace the shuttle than working on the commercial side of the area’s space industry.

Space Policy Analyst Edward Ellegood with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University says state lawmakers were no different.

“They’re seeing the same information that Space Florida and others are, that there are other programs that the federal government has in the pipeline that could replace the shuttle and take on the workforce there,” Ellegood says.

Those hopes were dashed last year, when the White House cancelled NASA’s Constellation Program, a plan to send astronauts back to the moon.  President Barack Obama later promised $40 million in federal funding to help the Space Coast deal with the loss of the shuttle program, but only $15 million of that has come through so far.

Space Florida’s Frank DiBello thinks the Space Coast needs to stop relying so much on federal space policy and focus more on private industry.

“I believe that this area has too long identified itself solely with what NASA was doing,”DiBello says.  “That’s what I’ve tried to break from Day One.”

He says attitudes have been changing.  After the cancellation of the Constellation Program last year, state lawmakers increased Space Florida’s funding from just under $4 million to $31 million. The idea was to help the agency, along with a host of local economic development partners, make a big push to bring new aerospace firms to the Space Coast.

One of the success stories can be found in a series of hangars at Melbourne International Airport.  Workers with defense contractor AAR repair aircraft that the company uses to fly people and cargo around war zones, like Afghanistan and Iraq.

The firm moved this facility from North Carolina to Melbourne in April of this year. So far, it’s hired just over 100 local employees, including fifteen former space shuttle workers.

“They bring a certain rigorous look at their position,” says Jeff Schloesser, president of AAR’s local division.  “They’re really proud of what they have done.”

He says the company has already been surprised at the volume of the response to its Melbourne job openings.

“In one of the coldest days this past winter, we ran a job fair and we thought that we’d probably have about a hundred people,” Schloesser says, “and 650 people showed up.”

Nine-year space shuttle veteran Anthony Sacra was one of them.  The engineer says he sent out about nineteen applications after he lost his shuttle job last October and did not get a single interview.   Things were different at AAR.

“I actually got a mini-interview right there at the job fair,” Sacra says. “It was exciting.  There were so many people trying to land jobs, and to be one of those to get the interview, it was incredible.”

He started working at AAR about two months later.

Just down the road, eighteen more former shuttle workers have found jobs at Brazilian jet maker Embraer’s new plant that opened in February.

Space Florida says it’s close to announcing deals that could bring another 4,000 jobs to the area over the next three years.

That’s small comfort to the thousands who are being laid off from the shuttle program now.  But Space Florida President Frank DiBello says he’s trying to get some of those incoming aerospace firms to hand out job offers before they actually get their local operations going.

“We’re working on a number of packages like that, where a worker who’s being laid off today will know that he has a job six, seven, eight months from now because he’ll have an offer letter,” DiBello says.

He says as many as a thousand jobs could be offered that way.

20-year-old Matt Harlow is betting on the future of the local aerospace business. He works at a store called Space Shirts, just off Kennedy Space Center property, printing shuttle-themed clothing. He’s also studying aerospace technology at Brevard Community College.

“A lot of people think, since the shuttle program’s going out of business, that’s the end of it,” says Harlow, “but … it’s a lot more broad than what people think.”

His optimism aside, enrollment in his aerospace program at BCC has dropped slightly over the past couple of years. 

But he is still a believer, and local leaders are working hard to make sure the Space Coast remains worthy of its nickname.



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