What Gets Made In LA Is Way More Than Movies

Nov 30, 2015
Originally published on May 12, 2016 11:01 am

In 2015, what's American made? The U.S. is known for manufacturing — it's part of our identity, though jobs have been lost. They've gone overseas. Technology has changed the way things are made.

Nevertheless, America is still making stuff.

And in terms of jobs, the Los Angeles area is the biggest manufacturing hub in the country. There are a few reasons why. There is plenty of space here to build things like factories and runways. That beautiful California weather? It's actually great for testing planes year-round.

The infrastructure here is also key. The huge ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles let companies quickly ship products to a global market, and get raw materials to build. A massive logistics region just east of Los Angeles, in the Inland Empire, is the first stop before products get on trucks to go across the United States.

And then, of course, there are the people. The huge population base in Southern California is not only a good source of labor, but they also need to buy things, and they provide a built-in market for some manufacturers.

But there are plenty of challenges, and the region has lost tens of thousands of jobs over the past several years.

Flying over LA would give you a bird's-eye view of how the geography of the city has been shaped by — and has shaped — manufacturing. On the coast, there are the ports, where $1 billion in goods come in and out every day. The ports have helped make it easier to export the goods made here. Off the coast, ships wait in long lines along the coast to get in. There, shipping containers pile up on top of each other like Legos.

Inland, in the shadow of downtown skyscrapers, there are miles of white-roofed factories, where workers make everything from clothing to furniture, from metal arts to food products. And then, as the city sprawls out, there's the new aerospace industry, which is a smaller, sleeker version of the one that thrived during World War II, the Cold War and the space race with the Soviet Union.

Aerospace has had its heart in LA for decades, and SpaceX is a good symbol of the future of that industry. Its headquarters in the LA suburb of Hawthorne had at one time been used to make fuselages for Boeing airplanes. Now it houses a private company that's venturing into outer space.

Technology — like drones and satellite communications — is also part of the new aerospace industry in the Los Angeles area.

The area's ports have helped make it easier to export the goods made here. Ships wait in long lines along the coast to get in. There, shipping containers pile up on top of each other like Legos.

The city may be known for Hollywood, but beyond the Hollywood sign and the Hollywood Hills are places like Burbank, where during World War II, big aerospace manufacturers like Lockheed came after getting defense contracts. Once orange groves, these towns offered companies space to make warplanes. Aerospace manufacturers also settled in other towns like Hawthorne and El Segundo, further stretching LA's sprawl and the need for swirls of highway, and, in the process, helping to create the geography of the city today.

It's not like manufacturing is thriving as it had. There are many challenges in this economy. The aerospace industry has lost tens of thousands of jobs over the past 25 years. Costs are high in Southern California, and some companies are moving.

Jeff Hynes, CEO of a company that makes jet engine parts called Composites Horizons, has lived through all this.

"There is certainly no greater joy for a manufacturer [than] to walk through the factory and hear the noises and sounds of machines turning and people doing work," Hynes says.

His father started the company in 1976. "We're in a transformational time. Just aerospace manufacturing in general, it's a good time. So, yeah, we aren't looking at a cliff," he says.

The cliff for Hynes was 1997, when McDonnell Douglas, a huge airplane manufacturer in Los Angeles, left after merging with Boeing in Seattle. Hynes' company, located about 20 miles outside of downtown LA, instantly lost 40 percent of its work.

"So we were kind of in a seminal moment in terms of determining where we were going to go with the business," he says.

The company shrank and then reinvented itself as a maker of niche jet engine parts. A lot of companies have had to take risks like that. Some American manufacturers have figured out that in this crazy global marketplace, one way to survive is to focus on something high-end or specialized and just do it well. But that's presented another challenge — finding the people who can do it.

"It's not likely that we're going to find people that are trained in the skills that we need them to be trained in," Hynes says.

Specialized manufacturers aren't finding the workers they need. The companies are doing training on their own. Schools are adapting, too, given that 80 percent of the world's aerospace fasteners — nuts, bolts, the things that hold one part of a plane to another — are made in Southern California.

Philip Yaghmai, a professor at El Camino Community College's Compton campus, developed, with industry help, the only community college program in the country that trains machinists to make aerospace fasteners.

Yaghmai, 62, who's originally from Iran, spent a majority of his career in the U.S. working as a mechanical engineer for various companies. He's been teaching in Compton for the past 6 1/2 years. "I felt like I could contribute more," he says. "My wife is African-American, and I like to contribute to the people that are maybe not as economically privileged."

Compton is an economically depressed community. Only 7 percent of residents hold a bachelor's degree or higher. African-Americans were once the majority; now Latinos hold that status.

Student Franz Dirzo's parents migrated from southern Mexico. Dirzo finishes his overnight job operating a forklift for Lowe's at 5 a.m., grabs a bite and a nap and takes classes from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. two days a week. He's hoping he'll land a job in aerospace making more an hour.

"I'm hearing things from like $18, $20 [an hour], so, very enticing," he says. He currently earns $13 an hour.

He encouraged his cousin, Jose Lazaro, 24 — who's working at Home Depot — to join him. And even though they've had difficulty making it to class on time, and staying awake during the lectures, Lazaro says he and his cousin are determined to finish the program.

"We're going to SpaceX; that's the goal right there," Lazaro says. "I see myself in SpaceX, I see him in SpaceX. That's where we're going."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's a chance to get a fuller picture of this nation's economy.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

You know the stereotype. Americans don't make stuff anymore. Manufacturing has declined. People work service jobs or in finance and buy stuff made in China.

INSKEEP: This week, we'll explore what is still American-made. Our colleague David Greene begins in the American metropolis with more manufacturing jobs than any other.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: We've come to a place that some people might not expect. It is the Los Angeles area, which is, in terms of number of jobs, the biggest manufacturing hub in the entire country. And I'm with my colleague, NPR's Sonari Glinton. And Sonari, you and I are standing at an airport.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Yeah, this is - it's not a fun place to be, man.

GREENE: Because you don't like flying. You like driving. But you and I are about to fly and go up in a very small helicopter that is sitting about 20 feet to your right.

UNIDENTIFIED PILOT: I'm going to close the doors and put guys in there.

(Over radio) Helicopter 3067 Poppa (ph) northwest corner with alpha (unintelligible) departure please.

GREENE: And up we went.

GLINTON: Holy mackerel.

GREENE: Over the San Fernando Valley. We turned south, and soon we were right over Los Angeles International Airport, LAX.

We are literally crossing over the runways.

GLINTON: What am I...

GREENE: There's actually a plane landing just below us. Wow.

GLINTON: Yeah.

GREENE: The Pacific is off to the right. We're looking left in search of this very recognizable building.

So we're looking for a building here, Sonari, that has a big X on top of it. Is that right?

GLINTON: Yes.

GREENE: And that building is SpaceX.

GLINTON: And SpaceX is the future of an industry that has its heart in Los Angeles, right?

GREENE: Aerospace has been important in Los Angeles for, I mean, decades and decades.

GLINTON: World War II and before - and if you look over here and you see the building...

GREENE: Yeah, there it is - big, white X on top of the flat roof of a massive building there. This building used to be used to make, like, fuselages for airplanes, right?

GLINTON: Yes, and now the idea is to put a rocket ship into orbit.

GREENE: We're nowhere near orbit, just 1,500 feet. And now we're approaching the massive ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

GLINTON: A billion dollars in goods comes in and out of this port every single day - a billion with a B.

GREENE: I just want to paint a picture here. There's so many shipping containers that look kind of small from up here. But they're just piled on top of each other, like a game of Tetris or when you were building Legos when we were kids. But it's just extraordinary.

GLINTON: Look at all the ships that are waiting along the coast to get in.

GREENE: From the port, we swing to the left now, inland, and back north, towards downtown LA. And below us, there's this sea of white roofed buildings. They're factories making everything from clothing to furniture, metal parts, food products. And we're going to spend some time down there tomorrow.

I'm just struck because, I mean, downtown is right there. And literally in the shadow of those skyscrapers, you have factories - I mean, for miles.

GLINTON: Yeah.

GREENE: Why isn't LA known for this?

GLINTON: Well, because we've got the thing that's awesome. We've got - we've got Hollywood, man. And that's - that takes up a lot of your headspace.

GREENE: Right, Hollywood and that sign, which is actually getting really close.

Yeah, we should get a picture of that. The Hollywood sign is outside our right window.

GLINTON: That is nuts.

GREENE: That is kind of nuts (laughter).

GLINTON: Over here, this is Warner Bros.

GREENE: Just sort of behind the Hollywood sign.

GLINTON: Behind the Hollywood Hills. This is Burbank. And you'll see some of Burbank's industry way back there that has survived.

GREENE: Now, let me ask you something, Sonari Glinton. A place like Burbank is now thought of as more studios and entertainment. But did that grow up because of manufacturing back in the day?

GLINTON: Yeah, essentially, when these aerospace manufacturers in World War II and after got these big defense contracts, they needed space to go. I mean, this is back in the day. Like, this is about as far as people came. Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra and people like that lived in, like, some big houses over here. And this was orange groves for a long, long time. So if you were looking to build a factory, you were going to come to a place where you had access to water. And you had a lot of space, and because of the automobile, you could get people there.

GREENE: So you could say manufacturing sort of, I mean, created the geography of Los Angeles as it is today.

GLINTON: Yeah.

GREENE: Sonari, I think on this flight, I mean, it looks like we're going down here. But I'm just amazed at the amount of space that is taken up by things related to manufacturing. You just don't think of LA in that way.

GLINTON: We still make stuff here in LA, whether it's a movie or a drone.

GREENE: Perfect way to finish our flight as we have touched down now. I'm going to shake your hand because we've made it safely.

GLINTON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Now, let's be clear. It is not like manufacturing is thriving here the way it once did. There's so many challenges in today's economy. And let's zero in on one industry we saw from the air, aerospace.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The Vultee (ph) plant, Downey, Calif.

GREENE: This old video was playing up LA's role in making planes during World War II. And then later, legendary LA Dodgers announcer Vin Scully made this in the 1970s.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

VIN SCULLY: You can sit in a seat like this at the ballpark. Here's another kind of a seat from a Wide Body Continental Airlines DC-10.

GREENE: Made in Southern California. But let's move to today. The aerospace industry has lost tens of thousands of jobs over the past 25 years. There's no more Cold War, no space race. Costs are high in Southern California, and some companies are moving. Jeff Hynes has lived through all of this.

JEFF HYNES: So let's put on our glasses.

GREENE: Sure.

HYNES: We're going to walk through the two factories where all of our polymeric composite work is done.

GREENE: He's the CEO of a company called Composites Horizons. They make jet engine parts that can withstand a lot of heat. He loves this work.

HYNES: There is certainly no greater joy for a manufacturer to walk through the factory and hear the noises and sounds of machines turning and people doing work.

GREENE: We sat with him in the conference room of the company that his dad started in 1976.

HYNES: We're in a transformational time. Just aerospace manufacturing in general, it's a good time. So yeah, we aren't looking at a cliff.

GREENE: The cliff for Jeff Hynes was 1997, when McDonnell Douglas, huge airplane manufacturer, left after merging with Boeing in Seattle. Hynes' company instantly lost 40 percent of its work.

HYNES: So we were kind of in a seminal moment in terms of determining where we were going to go with the business.

GREENE: The company shrank but then reinvented itself, focusing more on a niche, these specialized jet engine parts that can get super-hot.

You started saying no to things that were not sort of in your wheelhouse.

HYNES: In our wheelhouse, right. And it's a scary thing to do when your business gets cut.

GREENE: A lot of companies have had to take risks like that. Some American manufacturers have figured out that in this crazy global marketplace, one way to survive is to focus on something high-end or specialized and just to do it really well. But that's presented another challenge.

HYNES: It's not likely that we're going to find people that are trained in the skills that we need them to be trained in.

GREENE: Specialized manufacturers are not finding the workers they need. The companies are doing their best to train on their own, but schools are beginning to adapt as well. And my colleague Shereen Marisol Meraji from NPR's Code Switch team visited one.

PHILIP YAGHMAI: So on the tool path, what operation would you choose?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Drills.

YAGHMAI: Exactly, drilling.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: It's about 10 in the morning. And six guys have been slouched in front of computer screens for nearly two hours in Professor Philip Yaghmai's machining 101 course at El Camino Community College in Compton. Eighty percent of the world's aerospace fasteners - nuts, bolts, things that hold one part of a plane to another - are made right here in Southern California. And with industry help, Yaghmai developed the only community college program in the country that trains machinists to make them.

YAGHMAI: On a CNC, once you bring the tool down, it's a piece of cake. Keep it down. Save the time. Save manufacturing time. Just go boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.

MERAJI: The students are drilling five different types of holes in a metal block virtually, using computer-aided manufacturing software. Yaghmai, who's 62 and originally from Iran, worked most of his life in the U.S. as a mechanical engineer but has been a professor here in Compton for the past six and a half years.

YAGHMAI: I felt I could contribute more here at Compton.

MERAJI: Why is that?

YAGHMAI: A number of reasons. My wife is African-American. And I like to contribute to the people that are maybe not economically as privileged as some other places.

MERAJI: Compton is an economically depressed community. Only 7 percent of residents hold a bachelor's degree. African-Americans were once the majority, but now Latinos hold that status. And in Yaghmai's class today, all the students are Hispanic, like Franz Dirzo, whose parents migrated from southern Mexico. Dirzo finishes his overnight job operating a forklift for Lowes at 5 a.m., grabs a bite and a nap and takes class from 8 to 3 two days week. He's hoping he'll land a job in aerospace making more an hour.

FRANZ DIRZO: Oh, I'm hearing things from, like, 18, 20, so very, you know, enticing.

MERAJI: How much are you making now, if you don't mind me asking?

DIRZO: Thirteen.

MERAJI: He's encouraged his cousin, 24-year-old Jose Lazaro, who's working at Home Depot, to join him.

DIRZO: I figured it would be useful for the two of us.

MERAJI: Yaghmai says Lazaro and Dirzo are two of his better math students. And basic math is one of the skills necessary if you're hoping to be an aerospace machinist. But, he adds, it's also one of the reasons recruiting and retaining students has been tough.

YAGHMAI: I grew up in a different country. And in that country, to say I don't know math was a shame. Here in the United States, it seems like it's a matter of pride for someone to say, oh, I'm not good at math.

MERAJI: And it's not just the math that makes holding onto students hard. They skew older. Many have families to support, and they come to class after working long hours. Even his good math students, cousins Dirzo and Lazaro, have been coming late, missing class or nodding off during the lectures. Yaghmai says he doesn't mind sleeping in class, as long as they show up. Lazaro says he and his cousin have a plan, and they won't quit.

JOSE LAZARO: We're going to SpaceX. That's the goal right there. I see myself at SpaceX. I see him at SpaceX. That's where we're going.

MERAJI: SpaceX - two of Yaghmai's students have landed jobs there. And about 70 have gotten job offers from aerospace fastener companies in the last couple of years. But the industry insiders I spoke with told me the skilled labor one small community college program can provide is frankly nowhere near enough. Their boomer workforce is retiring. And they're worried. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News, Compton, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.