An increasing demand for satellites and space-related products has triggered a hiring surge at TRW Inc., which has added 2,900 workers at its Redondo Beach facility since 1994 and aims to hire another 1,200 by year’s end.
Company officials say most of the new hires are being funneled into TRW’s Space and Electronics Group, which constitutes the bulk of the Redondo Beach operations. There, technology old and new is plowed into satellites and other spin-off products being developed for military and civilian customers.
“Los Angeles has a very strong brain trust in the area of satellites and technology, which is about the fastest-growing area in aerospace,” said Michael Beltramo, president of aerospace consulting firm Beltramo & Associates in Bel Air.
“In Los Angeles County, TRW seems to be leading by some margin,” he said.
That assessment was confirmed by a Business Journal survey of aerospace hiring in Los Angeles County. TRW led the pack, followed by Lockheed Martin Skunk Works in Palmdale. The Skunk Works has added 1,500 workers since early 1996 and will add another 1,000 by next summer.
At its peak in 1989, TRW had 19,760 employees in Los Angeles County, mostly in the space and electronics group. By 1994, TRW had shrunk to 8,090, but has since climbed back up to well past 11,000 workers at its Redondo Beach facility.
Industry observers say TRW’s rebound is largely due to the fact that it has worked for years in areas of space and satellite technology where new applications are proving most plentiful.
“The key to TRW’s growth these days is that when we were downsizing a few years ago, we didn’t allow our technological development to go stagnant,” said Dan McLean, a spokesman for TRW at its Space Park facility in Redondo Beach. “Now that the economy is more robust and the demand for new technology is up, we have an advantage.”
TRW makes aircraft avionics, systems for warfare communication and lasers for research uses and for combat. But just like in the Cold War days, TRW’s bread and butter is now satellites.
Much of this work is military, such as the current research on what is called an Alpha Laser satellite. Intended to shoot down incoming missiles, the satellite would be a successor to the controversial Strategic Defense Initiative of the 1980s.
And in May, TRW was awarded a $59.8 million Air Force contract to develop a prototype of a satellite-based digital information system.
“The need for communications technology and satellites is going way up, and Los Angeles is the place for making them,” said Robert Paulson, an analyst and CEO of Aerostar Capital, which buys and consolidates small and medium-sized aerospace companies. “With the growth of cellular phones, satellite TV and many other applications, there is actual growth now of 15 to 20 percent a year.”
That being the case, one of the top areas of business growth for TRW is in the commercial and foreign demand for satellites, McLean said.
In May, TRW delivered the Republic of China’s first spacecraft, a lightweight satellite built to accommodate space experiments in physics, oceanography and communications. It is also building a similar instrument for South Korea.
Another strong area of growth for TRW stems from its continued research and development during the economic downturn a few years back. Much of this has to do with new applications for technology developed for military purposes.
One example of this is “gallium arsenide,” a substance used in producing semiconductors and chips. McLean explained that a gallium arsenide chip transfers energy, and thus information, several times faster than standard silicon chips.
The technology has been in development since the early 1980s but had initially proved prohibitively expensive to use, and was plagued by persistent technical bugs. But TRW researchers continued their work during the economic downturn, McLean said, and ultimately overcame those obstacles. The technology is now being employed in military satellites, as well as in satellites for private users and in digital portable phones.
TRW’s space and defense sales went from $2.8 billion in 1994 to $3.4 billion last year.
While TRW intends to hold on to as much of the defense budget pie as possible, McLean said, the ratio of military to non-military projects is expected to continue shifting. In the late 1980s, about 5 percent of the group’s projects were non-military. In 1993, this had risen to 19 percent, and today it is 24 percent, said McLean.
The other space and technology leader in Los Angeles, Hughes Electronics Corp., has added about 1,500 to its space and communications division in the past two years, placing it third in hiring among L.A. area aerospace firms.
Asked why TRW is growing so much faster than Hughes, Beltramo suggested it might have something to do with an x-factor in the equation.
“One thing I think has happened is that there have been some classified space programs won; TRW is known for doing that,” said Paulson. “I have heard this from certain people, and I think it accounts for some of that hiring.”
McLean of TRW refused to discuss, or even acknowledge, any classified space programs the company may be working on.
However, McLean did acknowledge that finding enough suitably skilled and educated engineers and scientists for the vigorous hiring of the past few years has been “challenging,” for TRW. Most of the new employees are either recent engineering school graduates or are lured from a related job.
“By and large, these aren’t assembly jobs,” McLean said. “A lot of what we do is with new technology, and while we recalled some people, someone who hasn’t kept up with technological advances would likely have a difficult time here.”