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Former Florida Shuttle Workers Still Struggling to Find Jobs

Roberto Gonzalez/Getty Images – A large crowd of people who were laid off when the shuttle program ended attended a job fair hosted by NASA this summer.

By next summer, employment at Kennedy Space Center is expected to fall to its lowest level since before the Apollo program blasted astronauts to the moon more than 42 years ago — a fact that doesn’t surprise folks on the Space Coast but still causes many to wince.

It has been nearly eight years since then-President George W. Bush announced plans to retire the space shuttle, and the region still is struggling to find good jobs for thousands of workers whose paychecks disappeared with the end of the shuttle era.

NASA officials predict the KSC workforce will number roughly 8,200 next year — about half the 15,000 employed there in 2008. A few hundred contractors are giving the shuttles last rites before they, too, join their former colleagues in a brutal job market.

Technicians such as Lew Jamieson, who lost his job in July, have major doubts about the future.

The president of the local machinist union has sent more than 50 résumés to prospective employers but has yet to connect.

“I’m not having much success. I’m not finding anything that matches my skill set,” said Jamieson, whose last job included launch systems maintenance. “By and large, there is no work out there for people in the trade.”

He said several former shuttle workers have found jobs at Disney and a new Boeing plant in South Carolina. But few are getting work that pays near the $70,000 or more they received at KSC.

“Some people are working at Lowe’s to buy groceries,” he said.

According to Brevard Workforce, which tracks local employment figures, about 550 out of 5,000 aerospace workers who registered with the agency had found new employment as of June, though officials say the number could be larger because they rely on the workers to self-report.

A leading factor contributing to the tough job market is uncertainty at NASA itself.

As part of Bush’s plans to cancel the shuttle, he ordered NASA to launch a new program to send astronauts back to the moon that would “conduct the first manned mission no later than 2014,” he said in 2004.

But that program, later dubbed Constellation, was canceled last year, and only in the past month has NASA replaced it with a new exploration program, which aims to have a first manned mission around 2021 — to a destination yet to be selected.

The repeated delays are especially hard on KSC, whose prime purpose has been processing NASA spacecraft for launch. Without launches, there’s no need to keep a standing army of technicians.

“The rough estimates we have, through the summer, is as low as 8,200, although we may have fewer layoffs than that,” said KSC spokesman Allard Beutel.

KSC employs about 9,000 civil servants and contractors, but that number is expected to fall again next year when the workers responsible for closing out the shuttle program finish their assignment.

Those remaining, including about 2,100 NASA civil servants, will continue doing other jobs such as engineering work for other agency programs, launch support for science missions and space-station research.

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