Much of modern Southern California can be traced to a mid-century boom in the aerospace and defense industries. Manufacturing plants sprouted across the region practically overnight, replacing an avocado and citrus-driven economy with a tech-based one that supported millions of middle-class jobs.
But Southern California’s luster faded. Manufacturers left the region, seeking out cheap land, inexpensive labor and lower taxes elsewhere. In a little over 20 years, the number of people employed by L.A. County’s aerospace and defense industries plummeted by 70 percent. The end of the Cold War in the early ‘90s further accelerated the process.
Now a consortium of 40 local governments, colleges, universities and nonprofits — Cal Poly Pomona among them — is working to reverse that trend. And it’s received a huge boost from the federal government, which is encouraging such efforts across the country with up to $1.3 billion in grant funding.
“AMP SoCal represents a tremendous opportunity for Cal Poly Pomona to help shape the future of Southern California,” says University President Michael Ortiz. “This partnership will allow our talented faculty and students to work alongside some of the best and brightest from around the region.”
The consortium Cal Poly Pomona belongs to — the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership of Southern California (AMP SoCal) — spans L.A., Orange, Ventura and San Diego counties. It was recently named one of 12 regional organizations from across the country that will participate in the U.S. Commerce Department’s Investing in Manufacturing Partnerships initiative.
“AMP SoCal is the response to President Obama’s call to become globally competitive as a nation,” says Behnam Bahr, associate engineering dean for Research and Graduate Studies. “The goal is to enable innovation, secure the talent pipeline, and improve the business climate for the country.”
Bahr led a team of College of Engineering faculty and staff to represent Cal Poly Pomona in AMP SoCal. As a whole, the partnership will focus on three areas: maritime engineering, aerospace engineering and cybersecurity. The university can focus more specifically on manufacturing, unmanned aerial vehicles, supply chain management, port infrastructure and transportation safety and logistics.
Marie Talnack, director of Cal Poly Pomona’s Technology Transfer Office and Industry Clinic, says AMP SoCal intends to address the region’s skills gap, a serious impediment to growth.
“We have a ‘dumbbell effect.’ We have very skilled workers in manufacturing, but they are very close to retirement and they don’t always have training in the latest advanced manufacturing techniques,” she says. “On the other end of the dumbbell, we have young students going through their education, and they are generally not interested in manufacturing. They think those jobs don’t pay well, don’t have good career opportunities and are mostly overseas.
“How are we going to get good manufacturing jobs in this country if we have a retiring workforce and young people aren’t going into manufacturing?”
Many major aerospace and defense corporations have already left or are in the process of leaving Southern California, but Talnack says there are plenty of second- and third-tier component manufacturers that still call the region home. They’re the ones that AMP SoCal seeks to help.
“The role that industry plays in this is to inform educational institutions about what they need their workers to be trained in,” Talnack says. “We as educational institutions need to listen to that.”
For faculty, the partnership means that they will be given preferential consideration when they apply for federal grants in those areas.
Meanwhile, students will see the development of new curricula that emphasize skills more closely aligned with the needs of industry. They will also see additional opportunities to get professional certifications in their fields. Talnack says that will make graduating students more attractive to employers and shorten their path from college to the workforce.
“Most importantly, the benefit will be for our students as funds become available,” Bahr says. “It translates to student support and funded research, and thus our future engineers will be even more globally competitive than they already are when they enter the workforce.”
Talnack says that won’t be much of a stretch for the university, with its learn-by-doing, polytechnic emphasis.
“We’re doing here exactly what the federal government was asking to be done,” she says. “It’s what we do.”