Jobs picture brightens on Florida’s Space Coast

By Ian Katz Bloomberg News

MELBOURNE, Fla. — Brian Medeiros was driving a Budweiser beer truck when he got a phone call saying he’d been offered an aerospace-industry job 15 months after his position at the U.S. space shuttle program was eliminated. He pulled over and sobbed in relief.

“I started bawling my eyes out,” he said. “It was a blessing. It was an opportunity to use every skill I’ve developed.”

Medeiros, 51, spent a decade at Kennedy Space Center in Florida’s 72-mile-long Space Coast handling highly toxic fuels for shuttle contractor United Space Alliance. He’s now a lead technician at the executive-jet assembly plant Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer opened in February 2011 in nearby Melbourne.

A year after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration shut down the shuttle program, eliminating at least 7,000 contractor jobs in the area, the employment outlook is improving. Joblessness in central Florida’s eastern coast was 9.4 percent in June, down from 11.7 percent in August 2011, the month after the last shuttle launch. Unemployment in Florida, a swing state in the 2012 presidential election, was 8.6 percent in June, down from 10.7 percent a year earlier.

“Certainly the pain is very real for those still looking for work,” said Dina Reider-Hicks, a senior director at the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast. “There has been a sting, there has been an impact. But it hasn’t been as severe as people thought.” Some local business leaders thought that the unemployment rate could rise to the high teens, she said.

Embraer plans to employ at least 200 people at the assembly plant and has 50 at a customer-service center it opened next door in December. The jet maker has said it will create another 200 jobs over five years at an engineering facility due to open across the street in 2013.

Boeing has said it will create 550 jobs by the end of 2015 for a commercial crew program to provide flights to the international space station. Harris, which provides information-technology services to the government, is building an engineering center in Brevard County that could add 100 jobs and 300 construction positions in the next three years.

Still, many former shuttle workers are struggling to find work.

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The culture of the industry has become embedded in Brevard County since Kennedy Space Center opened 50 years ago. It’s hard to drive more than a few minutes without passing a street named for an astronaut, such as Ronald McNair of the Challenger, or a space vehicle, such as Apollo Road or Columbia Boulevard. The local area code is 321, for the countdown before liftoff.

While Brevard County is reliably Republican, it’s in a battleground state for presidential candidates. In 2008, when Florida sided with Democrat Obama, Brevard’s vote went to Republican John McCain: 157,589 to 127,620.

Until companies such as Embraer and Boeing finish expanding, unemployed workers face a “short-term gap” to find jobs with pay comparable to what they received from shuttle contractors, said Marcia Gaedcke, president of the Titusville Area Chamber of Commerce.

“Managing that gap is the challenge,” Gaedcke said. “From the medium- to long-term we’ll be fine, we’ll see growth.”

Embraer technician Medeiros, an intense, beefy man with a small beard and salt-and-pepper hair, said he took the lower-paying job at a local beer distributor “just to keep myself mentally in the game.”

Myers interviewed for a position that would have paid $41,000, compared with $55,000 she made at the space center. She said she probably would have taken the job had she gotten an offer.

Some former shuttle workers have left the Space Coast, hurting the local economy.

The county’s foreclosure rate was 10.8 percent in May, one percentage point more than in July 2011 when the shuttle program shut down, according to CoreLogic Inc. It reached a high of 11.1 percent in February.

Kyra Morgan, 55, who runs a cleaning service in Titusville, said four of her clients moved away in one week alone this month to find jobs elsewhere.

“It trickles down,” said Morgan, whose husband lost his job as a shuttle mechanic.

One of the biggest problems for the business community is “fighting the perception a lot of people have that NASA has shut down,” the chamber’s Gaedcke said.

In fact, NASA said Aug. 3 that Boeing and Hawthorne, Calif,-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. won a combined $900 million in contracts from the agency to design and develop spacecraft that can carry astronauts. Sierra Nevada Corp. of Sparks, Nev., won a $212.5 million contract. The agreements will add an undetermined number of jobs to the Space Coast, the development commission’s Reider-Hicks said.

One advantage for the area is the availability of aerospace talent. That was a factor in Embraer’s decision to assemble jets in Melbourne and is reflected in the fact that one-quarter of the plant’s employees have worked on NASA projects, said Phil Krull, managing director at the facility.

When hiring former space-shuttle workers, Krull tries to make sure they can adapt from focusing on one shuttle for months at a time to production of up to eight jets a month. Many employees bring the passion they had at the space center and become some of the company’s best representatives, he said.

For Medeiros, who has two adult children plus to two teen stepchildren living with him and his wife, the loss of his space-shuttle job created “a big black void” in his life, he said.

Asked about his family’s reaction when he got his new position last year, Medeiros began to choke up before quickly collecting himself. He said he had feared he wouldn’t be able to get back into the aerospace industry and was surprised when he got the call from Embraer.

“I didn’t think they would be interested in me,” he said.