Space Coast Faces Crisis as NASA Winds Down Manned Program
Even in a state becoming numbingly familiar with job losses, Florida’s Space Coast stands out – a Senate panel was told Wednesday.
In October, 9,000 aerospace jobs are expected to disappear at Kennedy Space Center as NASA’s Space Shuttle program comes to a close even as a struggling commercial space industry fails to fill the gap, officials from Space Florida and state employment agencies said before the Commerce Committee.
The impact of the shuttle closure is forecast as rippling across the state, as contractors and suppliers in South Florida and the Tampa Bay-area adjust. But it’s in Brevard County where the spike in job loss among engineers, technicians and support staff is expected to prove most severe, said Lisa Rice, president of Brevard Workforce.
The county’s unemployment rate by fall is likely to hit 17 percent, she said – topping a statewide rate of 11.8 percent currently.
“They need your help,” Rice told the committee.
Senate Finance and Tax Chairman Thad Altman, R-Viera, is pushing a series of bills aimed at pumping state dollars into his home region aimed at promoting commercial space and spending $10.8 million remaining from a two-year-old appropriation for construction projects at Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Altman also wants lawmakers to embrace Gov. Charlie Crist’s $32.6 million in proposed spending for Space Florida, the state’s aerospace economic development effort. The bulk of the money is earmarked for business recruitment efforts – including $3.2 million for workforce retraining and counseling.
One of his initiatives (SM 994) is a memorial to Congress to allow Kennedy Space Center to get one of the retired Space Shuttles to display at the center’s visitor’s center. Several other locations across the U.S. have also submitted proposals to obtain an orbiter, Altman said, pointing out that Florida is in fierce competition with locations in Virginia, New Mexico and overseas for commercial space traffic.
Bringing an artifact orbiter to KSC, however, will require that the state pay NASA $28.8 million to prepare and transport the shuttle to Florida – a point unaddressed by Altman or committee members.
“There’s some talk that NASA may waive those charges,” Altman said later.
But Altman still drew plenty of skepticism from Commerce Committee members Wednesday. Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Cross City, questioned the need for providing resume-writing help and placement assistance to laid-off, but apparently well-educated technicians, while Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, questioned whether it was right to focus workforce dollars on one region of the state.
Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, said KSC officials had previously hired out-of-state firms for construction work at the center, hurting Florida businesses.
“You do have a challenge on your hands,” Chairman Rudy Garcia, R-Hialeah, told Altman about his push for spending.
Altman later acknowledged that he was surprised by the cool reception given him by the committee – which took testimony from Space Florida officials and others as part of the Space Day celebration at the Capitol.
“This area is really going to be hurting. Employment is going to just fall off a cliff,” Altman said.
Rice, of Workforce Brevard, said that efforts so far to find work for the more than 3,000 workers – or soon-to-be former aerospace employees – has yielded 64 jobs. But she downplayed that imbalance saying that several shuttle launches are still pending, keeping most on the payroll for now.
She conceded the KSC workforce is talented, but could find trouble landing new jobs.
“They speak in aerospace-ese, and we have to get them to speak outside the gate,” Rice said. “And many of them have not looked for a job for 10 to 20 years.”