It’s been a tough economic year for just about every business sector, especially in the hospitality-heavy city of Long Beach.
But one of the industries that has emerged unscathed has been aerospace, which managed to add a few thousand jobs between September 2019 and September 2020, according to a February report compiled by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation.
“We’re a community that tends to double-down when we have challenges,” said Dan Hart, president and CEO of Long Beach-based Virgin Orbit. “We put our heads down and we drive.”
Employment in aerospace throughout the Los Angeles basin rose 6% year-over-year, with companies hiring software developers, industrial and aerospace engineers, machinists and mechanical engineers.
The coronavirus pandemic did impact the commercial aerospace industry as flights were limited for much of the year due to stay-at-home orders.
“We did have to redesign how we operate,” Hart said, noting that normally bustling mission control rooms were manned by few people, with others joining in remotely from other rooms and locations. “Pretty much all the rooms had one or two people.”
However, the recent report noted, many of the aerospace companies in the Los Angeles area are positioned to focus more on space technology—a chunk of which is funded through government contracts—instead of aircraft production.
Early on in the pandemic, Virgin Orbit and its sister company Virgin Galactic even pivoted their business models to focus on helping produce crucial medical and personal protective equipment, which at the time was in short supply.
“Out engineers started to tinker and we … decided to take on building a ventilator,” Hart said. “A couple months later, we had delivered 600 ventilators to the state of California. A couple weeks after that, we gave the design to outfits in South Africa, South Asia and the Caribbean so they could produce it for their populations.”
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena similarly produced a NASA-designed COVID-19 ventilator.
Virgin Galactic, meanwhile, began manufacturing face helmets and face shields, Hart said.
Long Beach over the years has made a deliberate push to attract aerospace companies in Douglas Park after companies such as Boeing and Northrop Grumman Corp. relocated to other regions.
The city, fueled by the new additions of Virgin, Rocket Lab, SpinLaunch and Relativity Space in Douglas Park, has positioned itself as a hub for the booming space industry.
The industry across the region initially lost about 1,400 jobs in March and April, but quickly rebounded, adding about 3,000 jobs from May to October, the LACEDC report found.
Relativity Space, for example, nearly tripled its staff from around 100 at the start of 2020 to around 280 as of early February, according to Caryn Schenewerk, the company’s vice president of regulatory and government affairs. The newest addition to Long Beach’s reemerging aerospace sector, Relativity expects to reach around 500 employees by the end of the year, Schenewerk added.
These jobs tend to be higher-paying, too.
While the average county wage is $67,100 annually, aerospace jobs pay more than $100,000 on average.
The industry is not extremely diverse in its workforce, however; it is older, educated men, with a high concentration of White and Asian workers. But at least one company, Relativity Space, is trying to be more inclusive in its hiring, Schenewerk said, noting the company is working with Pacific Gateway, Long Beach’s workforce development arm, to tap into the area’s diversity.
Industries that cater to a younger more diverse workforce were far harder hit by restrictions put in place to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
The LACEDC report found arts, entertainment and recreation and accomodation and food services were the two hardest-hit industries by the pandemic, losing 39.5% and 28.2% of their workforce, respectively, from September 2019 to September 2020.
More than 25,000 waiters and waitresses alone lost their jobs during that time period, and roughly 55% of all unemployment claims were filed by those under the age of 44.
But while the outlook for hospitality and other service-based industries remains bleak, aerospace firms continue pushing forward.
“There’s a huge amount of innovation,” Hart said. “By and large, it’s a pretty darn exciting time. We’re seeing a renaissance happening in orbit.”