Some have headed to South Carolina to build airplanes in that state’s growing industry, and others have moved as far as Afghanistan to work as government contractors. Some found lower-paying jobs beneath their technical skills that allowed them to stay. Many are still looking for work and cutting back on things like driving and utilities to save money.
“Nobody wants to hire the old guy,” said Terry White, a 62-year-old former project manager who worked 33 years for the shuttle program until he was laid off after Atlantis landed last July. “There just isn’t a lot of work around here. Or if so, the wages are really small.”
White earned more than $100,000 a year at the end of his career at the space center. The prospects of finding a job that pay anywhere near that along the Space Coast are slim.
“I could take an $11-an-hour job that is 40 miles away,” he said “But with gas prices and all that, it’s not really worthwhile.”
More than 7,400 people, who once had labored on one of history’s most complicated engineering achievements, lost their jobs when the shuttle program ended last July. While other shuttle workers in Houston, New Orleans and Huntsville, Ala., lost jobs, those areas had bigger economies to absorb the workers. In less economically diverse Brevard County, the mainly contractor positions cut by NASA accounted for just under 5 percent of the county’s private sectors jobs.
The Kennedy Space Center’s current workforce of 8,500 workers is the smallest in more in than 35 years. In the middle of the last decade, the space center employed around 15,000 workers.
James Peek, a 48-year-old quality inspector for the shuttles, has applied for 50 positions with no success since he was laid off in October 2010. He has taken odd jobs glazing windows for a luxury hotel in Orlando and working as a security guard. He has no health insurance and incurred a $13,000 bill when he was hospitalized for three days last May.
“With most companies, it’s like your application goes into a black hole,” Peek said. “We’re struggling to stay afloat.”