From Hughes To Hell And Back

Jack Tancredi is an engineer, so he's used to dealing in facts. And the facts he had the day he lost his job just didn't add up.

First of all, his team at Hughes Aircraft Co. was in the middle of a lucrative contract with the Dutch navy to design targeting devices for Gattling guns. Second, and more important, Jack was a key member of the team. Only two months earlier, the marketing department had sent him on a big trip to Amsterdam for the project, and his presentation had been well received. At 54, Jack felt good about his career. In fact, he had never really felt better during his 32 years in the defense industry--13 of them at Hughes.

He had worked for big organizations most of his life, so when his boss called him into his spacious office that afternoon, Jack had that vaguely queasy sensation that something was about to change. He knew it was dangerous to assume the change might be positive, but as he walked up the hall, he couldn't resist wondering if a promotion was in the offing. Instead, his boss sat him down and unceremoniously asked for his security badge. "Jack," he said, "we're making some changes, and there's no place for you in our future."

SPIRALING DOWN. It's almost two years later now, and Jack Tancredi still feels deeply betrayed. Most of the time, his emotions are filed carefully away, but when pressed he'll recount how he threw down the badge, hurled an obscenity at his boss, and stormed out of the building feeling angry and defiant. The anger is still there, but the defiance has been replaced by an empty well of frustration. "It never dawned on me I would be out of work," he says.

The same is probably true for the 121,000 other defense and aerospace workers who have lost their jobs in Los Angeles County since 1988. They are being swept downward by a region caught in a stubborn decline. Nearly 1 million workers have been idled nationwide as a result of the steady post-Reagan-era defense cutbacks. In batches of 2,000 or 5,000, sometimes more, sometimes less, they have bled out of companies like Hughes, Lockheed, Northrop, and McDonnell Douglas. The headlines have chronicled the trend, but rarely the bewildering experience of living as a labor statistic.

For Jack, the good news is that he has finally found a job. The bad news is that it's with a thinly capitalized engineering startup at 34% less pay. He's not complaining. He's just glad to be back to work. But the experience has plainly worn him out.

Jack can still remember the feeling he had when he first stepped off the plane from New Jersey in 1979. March had been gray and chilly back home, but Los Angeles was as advertised: warm and bright. As the first dry California breeze swept across his face, he knew he had made the right choice. "At that moment, I became a native," he recalls. "This was the place where I wanted to be."

Of course, thousands of other engineers and scientists had flocked to places such as Torrance, Long Beach, and El Segundo during the cold war. But for Jack, California and Hughes were especially sweet. After growing up in a working-class Italian neighborhood in New York City, he had won an appointment to West Point--only to be kicked out for discipline lapses. He finished his training at the City University of New York and worked for 18 years as an electronics engineer in a nondescript Defense Dept. job in New Jersey. Hughes, by comparison, was nirvana. It was an elite aerospace company, long known for its job security, top pay, and lavish benefits. As he set up a home with his wife and three kids, Jack felt he had escaped a life of drudgery for something immeasurably better.

Jack wasn't exactly a star at Hughes, but he prospered there. As a program manager, he headed teams developing advanced microwave tubes for radar targeting devices. He was recognized as an expert in electron beam technology. His easy manner and ability to translate complex issues into plain talk made him a favorite in the marketing department. He traveled the country presenting technical papers to engineering groups. Marketing trips to Europe and Asia were not uncommon. By 1991, Jack was pulling in $83,000 a year while commanding a staff of 20 people.

There were plenty of personal triumphs as well. Surging real estate prices made Jack look smart when he sold his first California house for a gain of $75,000 just two years after buying it. He weathered a painful divorce from his first wife, but went on to marry Linette Markelle, a studio photographer whom he met in Monterey. They bought a house in Torrance, minutes from Jack's job. Linette set up a studio nearby.

When Jack lost his job, Linette was as astounded as he was. "I thought he was making a bad joke," she says. "I just knew there was no way he could be replaced." But in hindsight, both think they should have seen it coming. The headlines had been relentless. Pentagon cutbacks had produced wave after wave of layoffs as programs such as the B-2 bomber and A-12 attack jet were sacrificed. Jack's division was thriving, but Hughes itself was hit as hard as any contractor. Since 1986, it had reduced its work force by 30%.

Linette's business, too, had faltered as the local economy headed south. After years of frothy growth, Los Angeles County abruptly developed a 9% unemployment rate. In October, 1991, the month before Jack was let go, five couples Linette was to have photographed canceled or postponed their weddings. "All of a sudden my nice yuppie engineers no longer had jobs," she says.

STEP BY STEP. Despite the harrowing layoff numbers, Jack wasn't overly worried about his predicament when he was first laid off. His division gave him three months' notice--more than enough, he thought, to find a new position within Hughes. He continued to work, although his boss said he didn't have to. And he made the rounds within the company in a vain hope he would be rehired.

That proved a costly mistake. Pete Koustas, a former Hughes marketing manager, notes Jack never really had a chance of being rehired, despite a solid reputation. "He wasn't part of the inner circle [in other units]," Koustas explains. "Most managers had been there since college. They protected their own."

Hughes won't comment about the circumstances surrounding Jack's layoff. But the company is taking action on behalf of its laid-off workers. In September, Hughes received a $10 million federal grant to fund an experimental program to help find jobs for its idled employees. For Jack, though, the grant came too late.

It wasn't until April, five months after losing his job, that he finally began thinking seriously about looking outside for work. At the Defense Dept. back in New Jersey, Jack had worked with many engineers at big outside contractors. Those contacts, he assumed, would provide an "in" someplace else. But as he went down the list, he was astonished to find that virtually all of the people he knew in the industry had either recently retired or been let go. Suddenly, Jack began to feel the storm clouds gather. "It was a shaky time," he says. "There was no one I could call."

Despite the blowup at his boss, Jack is not an outwardly emotional man. He speaks slowly, his responses are measured. He approaches hurdles as many engineers do: They are definable problems with logical answers. As his plight became clear, he sketched out the blueprint of a solution. He would maintain a strict schedule in the mornings, writing letters and sending out resum s (300 in all). In the afternoons, he would help Linette with her photography business. Each step would lead to another. Finally, the answer would emerge.

The structure helped, but as Jack waded into the system of government- and industry-financed retraining programs, his anxiety grew. The local Private Industry Council required that he attend two weeks of tedious classes on resum writing and interviewing techniques to gain access to a listing of jobs. The best the council could come up with was a position managing the line at a local stationery plant. While Jack thought both the job and the $40,000 salary were beneath him, he didn't say no immediately. They did. Since he didn't speak Spanish, he wasn't even called in for an interview.

By July, 1992, the Tancredis were running out of money. Jack had stretched his 14 weeks' severance pay far enough to cover the bills through June. Once that dried up, there was only the income from Linette's studio work, and that wasn't even covering expenses. To save money, Jack canceled their health insurance policy, figuring the $480 premium would buy two months' groceries. That still left a $2,000 monthly mortgage payment. And with no job, refinancing was out of the question.

Late that month, Jack made the hardest telephone call of his life. Contrite and embarrassed, he rang up his 84-year-old mother in New York and borrowed $5,000. His brother, a New York postal worker, came through with $10,000 more. With no further relief in sight, Jack and Linette decided to take some drastic steps. Linette let go her two photo assistants--Jack would do their work--and Jack moved her equipment into their home.

The master bedroom became the studio. Jack and Linette moved their quarters into a cramped guest room. The living room became the lobby, dominated by a large doll in a wedding dress standing on a table behind the couch. On the walls hung samples of Linette's work: wedding shots, baby portraits, and several "boudoir" shots of young women in lacy lingerie. Amid it all sat a snapshot of Jack with his two grown daughters and son.

A few weeks later, Jack finally got some good news. He was invited to fly to Waxahachie, Tex., to interview for a post on the Superconducting Super Collider program. It was his first interview in two months, and only the third since he had lost his job eight months earlier. He had already written his resum to mask his age. Now, on the eve of the big interview, he decided to go one step further: He dyed his graying sideburns and mustache jet-black. "I felt I absolutely had to present a youthful image," he recalls.

LOOMING DISASTER. The all-day interview sessions went so well that Jack assumed he had the job. But when two weeks went by without a word, he finally called, only to learn he had been passed over. "I was so dumbfounded I didn't even think to ask why," he recalls. He consoled himself with the news that General Dynamics Corp. in Fort Worth had laid off 5,000 workers since his interview, creating a surplus of local engineers for the job. But losing the chance left him feeling worthless and powerless, about as bad as he had ever felt. "It was the absolute low point for me," he says. "I felt that I was of no value to anybody."

As it turned out, the Texas interview was the last Jack was going to have for more than a year. And as summer turned to fall, his relationship with Linette began to deteriorate. Jack plunged into his wife's photography business, carrying cameras and adjusting lights. But by now, he was driving her crazy. She couldn't accept that Jack, once such a success, had been out of work for a year. And the constant togetherness was becoming unbearable. "Every single day you get up and face each other," she says. "Before, Jack had his career and he was good at what he did. And I did what I did. Now, all of a sudden, he's trying to do what I do. It was horrible. We yelled all the time." The dreary monotony was broken in January, 1993, when Jack entered an intensive retraining program to learn environmental engineering. Classes lasted 10 hours a day, with tests in chemistry, waste management, and environmental law. Jack jumped in with both feet. "I tell you, Jack was always first with an answer," says former Hughes co-worker Kantesh Gupta, another retrainee.

The program ended in April. But by August, Jack hadn't gotten a single nibble from any of the dozens of environmental companies where he had applied. The money was running out again, and for the first time, the Tancredis seriously feared losing their home. The only way they got to sleep at night was with the drone of the TV in the background. Linette found herself breaking into tears randomly during the day. Sitting in their living-room-turned-waiting-room one hot afternoon, she could hardly contain her frustration with Jack and his situation. "We are this close to becoming homeless," she said, holding her thumb and index finger almost together.

HELP FOUND. Jack, never much of a churchgoer, began to pray as the summer wore on. He wonders if maybe that's what finally paid off. One Sunday morning late in August, he came across a two-line help-wanted ad in the Los Angeles Times. A company called American International Technologies Inc. was looking for an expert in electron microwave tube technology. Jack faxed over his resum , went in for an interview, and was hired the next week. Just like that.

AIT is a tiny company founded five years ago by a former Hughes engineer. It designs high-tech systems that clean liquid waste and speed up the curing process of ink used on labels and paper currency. The company has six employees and an annual budget of about $350,000--mostly in grants from Lawrence Livermore Laboratories. Jack makes $55,000, and his job is to help design the product. He also keeps track of finances while the president combs the country for investors.

Linette says the new job has saved their marriage. "I was waiting for him to get a job so I could leave," she says bluntly. "But there's been a drastic personality change in him. He's more like the person I used to know, the person I married." AIT doesn't provide the security of a Hughes, but Jack is certainly willing to take his chances. The crucial thing is that the new job gives him back a measure of his lost dignity. "What's important," he says, "is feeling responsible for something again and having someone put faith in me again." For Jack Tancredi and the thousands more like him, having a job at all is California dream enough these days.