Former Defense Workers Train for Toxic Cleanup
California program addresses growing needs of regulatory field
CULVER CITY, CALIF. — FRANK WILLIS, design specialist laid off by Lockheed after 32 years, wants to be a consultant on hazardous-material regulations for real estate.Charlotte Hardman, a Hughes Aircraft missile-circuits designer for 12 years, wants to design equipment to clean up toxic chemicals. Robert Enich, aircraft electrician at Lockheed for 12 years, is considering the entire field of environmental-compliance law. In a small classroom at West Los Angeles College, these three are among 29 enrolled in the first government-funded program of its kind: a hazardous waste and environmental cleanup course that trains laid-off aerospace workers for jobs as hazardous-waste technicians. McDonnell Douglas Corporation, Northrop Corporation, Lockheed Corporation, Rockwell International Corporation, and Hughes Aircraft Company are either downsizing with post-cold-war budget cuts or shifting some operations out of state. The industry has been in steady decline since 1987, lost 32,000 between September 1990 and September 1991, and several thousand more are threatened, according to the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy. "Every study we see shows the regulation and cleanup of hazardous waste to be the growth field for the next decade while aerospace and defense is shrinking," says Patricia Williams, senior vice president for the United Automobile Worker Labor Employment & Training Corporation (LETC). Since 1984, the nonprofit group has helped retrain laid-off employees for other fields. LETC received a $520,000 contract from California's state Employment Training Panel (ETP) specifically for laid-off defense and aerospace workers because demand for the new services is high. California's several air-quality management agencies and the new state Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) need more competent inspectors; companies trying to meet the state's stringent new environmental laws need consultants. "The field is vast and growing," says Steve Fink, who designed the broad-based program to embrace industrial waste-water release, air/water/ground pollution, transportation, and environmental law. "The real consequences of all these environmental safety and health regulations are only now percolating down to smaller companies," he says. "We're trying to ready [these students] to go any one of a number of directions." Besides six weeks of accelerated classwork, the instruction includes training for "first responder" certification. Donning hard hats, breathing masks, boots, gloves, and rubber suits, students run drills in approaching unknown toxic chemical spills. "It was like a real event in which you had to know how to coordinate police, fire, and health departments and even the press," says Mr. Willis. Class members who didn't want to swelter beneath protective clothing were assigned to mock finance committees that search for those who will pay for the spill. "If there are no state monies, we have to find who's liable and figure out how to go after them in court," says Mr. Enich. Willis says the course was "eye-opening in its breadth. ve become interested in the investment and banking end of real estate," he says. "The liabilities to companies leaving and purchasing land that may be contaminated is staggering." Laid off in August when the US Navy canceled a $600 million contract to develop an anti-submarine patrol aircraft, Willis says he needs a job quickly. Recession has made his search difficult. Under LETC's contract, California withholds the approximate $5,200 funding per student until that student has worked 90 days in a job paying from $7.95 to $14 per hour. "It's really in the interest of the LETC to stick with the students in getting employment," says Ada Carrillo, manager of planning at the ETP. "Even if the field is stalled at the moment, all the signs make us confident it will open up as the '90s progress."