Marietta, Ga. Jason Rhoads landed a job last summer that seemed secure enough to support his young family through the recession — building military planes for the nation’s largest defense contractor.
He joined 7,000 workers at Lockheed Martin’s massive plant in this Atlanta suburb, assembling aircraft for the Pentagon, such as the C-130J cargo plane and the futuristic F-22 Raptor.
Now Rhoads, who has a 21-month-old son and a pregnant wife, wonders whether he might be headed for unemployment as the Defense Department seeks to scrap or reduce some of its costliest weapons programs, including the F-22 fighter.
“I just figured you kind of worked for the government, so it’s more secure,” said Rhoads, who earns $15 an hour, plus overtime, as a crane operator moving wing panels for the C-130J and routing parts to workers assembling F-22s. “I just wonder, what would I do? File unemployment and make cash under the table mowing lawns and stuff?”
Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ proposed cuts, announced this week, mean uncertainty for workers in an industry many assumed was safe as long as the nation remained at war. While the proposed $534 billion defense budget adds $21 billion to spending in 2009 and some contractors could gain, thousands of defense workers may join growing jobless lines.
Of course, the potential pain depends whether members of Congress, with jobs in their districts at stake, will go for Gates’ plan.
Some lawmakers are voicing opposition, and analysts doubt Congress will agree to cut big programs when unemployment is already high. And many defense workers are politically active through unions such as the International Association of Machinists Local 709 in Marietta, which has a “Vote Obama” poster behind the front desk.
“There are certain policy decisions Congress has a say so in, and we are going to have a say,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who has advocated buying more of the F-22 jets, said this week.
Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin Corp. has said 95,000 jobs at various sites could be lost by scuttling the F-22, touted as the world’s most advanced jet fighter with a price tag of $140 million apiece.
The Obama administration wants to discontinue the F-22 after 187 planes already planned are completed in late 2011. Lockheed had hoped to build 20 additional jets. The F-22 program was launched in the 1980s to guarantee U.S. air superiority over the Soviets but has never seen combat.