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 LLC. He’s now a lead technician at the executive-jet assembly plant Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer SA opened in nearby Melbourne, Florida, in February 2011.
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 Co. 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 Corp., 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.
Francine Myers, 53, who started at the space center in 1981, lost her position as a logistics specialist in July 2011. She’s had two job interviews and no offers since then.
Myers, who has two grown children and lives alone in Titusville, about 40 miles north of Melbourne, tried to squeeze as much as she could from her 26 weeks of severance.
“I’m about at the end of that,” she said over a Greek salad at Mr. Submarine & Salads, where sandwiches are named for the Discovery, Columbia and Challenger shuttles. “I need to find a job.”
Myers said she doesn’t have health insurance and must take three kinds of insulin for her diabetes, in addition to pills for her blood pressure and thyroid condition.
In between looking for work on websites run by CareerBuilder Inc. and Monster Worldwide Inc., Myers is trying to get a business-administration degree at Barry University’s Cape Canaveral branch. She said a program at Brevard Workforce, a county agency that helps retrain dismissed workers, covers the cost.
Her cousin, Fred Harvey Jr., took an entrepreneurship course through Brevard Workforce after losing his job with the shuttle program and has opened Fred’s Auto Butler Mobile Detailing Services, a small business that spiffs up cars, boats and airplanes.
Like many former shuttle employees, Myers, who worked on every launch except the first going back to 1981, misses the sense of patriotism and pride.
“I don’t care how many launches you see, every one still gives you goose bumps,” she said. She remembers feeling her heart sink watching the January 1986 Challenger explosion from the porch of her grandmother’s house. She said she saw the smoke and thought, “Wait a minute. It’s not supposed to look like that.”
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, like 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 Barack 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, took the lower-paying job at a local beer distributor “just to keep myself mentally in the game,” he said. 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, California-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, Nevada, 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 of the employees bring the passion they had at the space center to Embraer and become some of the company’s best representatives, he said.
For Medeiros, who has two adult children in addition to two teen-aged 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 with emotion 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.