Technology

Aerospace firms boost payrolls; defense slips

2014-04-27T00:00:00Z Aerospace firms boost payrolls; defense slipsBy David Wichner Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Southern Arizona’s major aerospace employers are among the technology-based companies that staged a resurgence in 2013, as several firms serving commercial aviation markets boosted their payrolls.

Meanwhile, aerospace-oriented defense firms like Raytheon Missile Systems shed some jobs in 2013, while military employers like Davis-Monthan Air Force Base saw cuts mainly in civilian workers due to sequestration and Pentagon budget-cutting efforts.

Bombardier Aerospace, the area’s biggest aviation employer, added more than 100 jobs last year as it opened three new maintenance lines for its Q400 and Q400 NextGen turboprops to support new long-term maintenance contracts with North American carriers.

Another local aerospace firm that made big strides in 2013 was B/E Aerospace, a maker of luxury interiors for the corporate and private jet markets. The company has nearly doubled its staff since 2011 as the global market for cabin interiors has begun recovering from the recession and its lingering aftermath.

Some smaller aerospace companies are growing as well.

  • Sargent Aerospace and Defense, which makes components for the new F-35 fighter jet and military helicopters and submarines as well as commercial aerospace parts, expanded its Marana operations in 2011 and now employs 340 workers, up from around 250 before the expansion.
  • Securaplane Technologies last year moved into a new building at Oro Valley’s Innovation Park, expanding its workforce from 115 in 2012 to 158 at the end of 2013. The company makes battery, power conversion, camera, security and wireless control systems for aircraft makers including Airbus, Boeing Co., Bombardier, Gulfstream and Embraer. Securaplane, which was acquired by United Kingdom-based Meggitt PLC in 2011, expects double-digit sales growth for the next decade, Securaplane President
  • Shubhayu Chakraborty
  • said at an event in February.
  • Ascent Aviation Services, an airliner maintenance company specializing in narrow-body planes, showed a small decline in employment last year but expects to hire more workers this year as it builds a new maintenance hangar at Tucson International Airport.
  • Employment at Universal Avionics Systems was essentially flat after an expansion in 2012, while maintenance operator Marana Aerospace Solutions reported a small decline.

Prized for its relatively high wages and high-value exports, the technology-driven aerospace sector is the focus of economic and workforce development in the region.

Aerospace is a mainstay of Pima County’s manufacturing sector, accounting for nearly half of the 23,200 manufacturing jobs in the county in 2013, according to the Arizona Department of Administration and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But overall, employment in “aerospace products and parts” manufacturing in Pima County fell from 11,200 jobs in January 2013 to 10,900 in January 2014, a drop of about 2.6 percent.

Aerospace and defense are a major focus for Tucson’s economic-development group, Tucson Regional Economic Opportunites Inc. (TREO), along with solar energy, biosciences and logistics.

At a meeting of the Pima County Workforce Investment Board, TREO’s David Welsh compared the aerospace and defense sector to the sun in a model solar system.

“Aerospace and defense is the sun, and these other industries really are much, much smaller,” he said. “So we spend a lot of time focusing on what’s supportive of that aerospace and defense.”

While the aerospace and defense sectors are often lumped together, the payrolls of Southern Arizona’s major defense employers are moving in opposite directions.

Raytheon Missile Systems — the region’s biggest private employer and the state’s biggest private defense employer – reported a drop of about 350 employees in the region last year, as the Pentagon looks to slash its budgets.

A Raytheon spokesman attributed the drop mainly to attrition through employee retirements.

However, Raytheon confirmed two relatively small layoffs last year, which it said were part of its ongoing efforts to match programs and staffing.

Industry analysts consider Raytheon to be less susceptible to major defense cuts because of the breadth of its missile and electronics businesses.

Most of Raytheon’s major programs have received sustaining support in 2015 budget proposals, including missile-defense spending, though a Navy proposal to halt orders for new Tomahawk cruise missiles has raised concerns at Raytheon that production lines would be shut down.

Among military employers, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base shed hundreds of mainly civilian jobs last year amid Pentagon budget cuts and faces potential further shrinkage with the proposed retirement of the A-10 attack jet and other cuts.

The U.S. Army Intelligence Center and Fort Huachuca posted a small increase in workforce as a special-operations aviation training unit was added and some units came back from deployment (last year’s Star 200 employment figure for Fort Huachuca was too low due to a math error by the source and has been adjusted).

Among other major technology-based employers, IBM Corp. continues to shed jobs globally and in Tucson. The local operation was involved in at least two layoffs last year, according to a union that tracks such actions, but IBM stopped releasing local employment data several years ago.

Meanwhile, the region’s biggest biosciences employer, Ventana Medical Systems, has grown rapidly at its Oro Valley campus, adding some 500 employees since its acquisition by Swiss drug giant Roche AG in 2008.

The company, a University of Arizona technology spinoff that now employs 1,100 people, makes equipment for tissue testing and has been rolling out new gene-based test products.

Ventana reported a small dip in employment in this year’s Star 200 survey. In August, the company confirmed that an undisclosed number of local sales and marketing employees were laid off or moved as part of a global restructuring by Roche.

But Ventana officials have forecast long-term business growth with the move to more genetic testing to match specific drugs to individual patients.

One biosciences up-and-comer to watch is Accelerate Diagnostics, which plans to raise $45 million in a stock-rights issue to help bring to market its new technology for rapidly detecting and identifying pathogens.

Led by former Ventana executives, Accelerate has hired more than 50 people since moving to Tucson from Denver in 2012, and company officials say its payroll could reach several hundred workers in the future if its plans succeed.

Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at dwichner@azstarnet.com or 573-4181.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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