Updated Jan. 29 at 11:10 a.m. Eastern with additional information from Boeing.
WASHINGTON — Boeing is striving to keep a core of 4,000 to 4,500 workers busy at its satellite manufacturing facilities across California to prevent losing highly experienced workers during a slow down in commercial and government satellite orders.
Marc Johansen, Boeing Government Operation’s vice president of satellites and intelligence programs, said the company’s resurgence in the commercial sector has helped keep Boeing workers busy while it waits out U.S. Defense Department decisions on next-generation military satellites.
“We are working very hard at the factory to ensure that our engineers are working on the commercial side … [so] that we keep them at this critical mass,” Johansen said Jan. 25 at a panel discussion here organized by the CompTIA Space Enterprise Council. “That’s what we have right now is a critical mass. So I would say that we are doing OK right now keeping that 4,000 to 4,500 group employed.”
Of that number, approximately 2,500 to 3,000 are based at Boeing’s El Segundo, California plant. The remainder are spread across the Los Angeles basin, including Los Angeles, Huntington Beach, Seal Beach, and the Boeing-owned solar panel manufacturer Spectrolab in Sylmar, California.
Though commercial geostationary satellite orders have been low the past three years — 19 in 2015 and 17 in 2016 according to research firm NSR, before plunging to seven last year by SpaceNews’ count — Boeing has secured some of the major orders. Boeing is building Intelsat’s six EpicNG high-throughput satellites, five of which have launched, two of ViaSat’s ViaSat-3 satellites, and two or three other commercial telecom satellites. Last year, Boeing won a big-ticket SES contract for the fleet operator’s O3b mPower series of seven high-capacity telecommunications satellites in medium Earth orbit.
On defense, Boeing is winding down a contract for 10 Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) satellites, nine of which are already in orbit. The Defense Department is still studying its options for a WGS successor system, and has yet to decide whether to order more government-owned satellites, rely on commercial satellite services, or take a hybrid approach.
Johansen said Boeing wants to avoid an “emergency situation” where “all of the sudden the government says ‘we have a gap, we have a need and we need to ramp up,’ and in the meantime we’ve been bleeding engineers.”
Boeing’s commercial satellite business is currently larger than its defense satellite business, he said, helping to preserve talent, though there are expertise differences between the two lines.
“We see that there could be a drop off if we don’t continue, if we don’t bring in some of the defense work, because you always have to look at that five years out,” he cautioned.
Johansen mentioned design engineers as an example, saying when employees with that “exquisite background” leave during a lull in defense orders, Boeing has to go on a hunt “to get them back in the factory,” when the lull ends.
Along with WGS, Boeing is also eyeing Air Force decisions on additional GPS-3 satellites. The Air Force said in November that it expects to release a request for proposals for the next GPS production lot, and that Boeing and Northrop Grumman will compete with incumbent Lockheed Martin, who is building the first 10.