Westinghouse Electric Corp.'s recent decision to terminate 1,400 people, or 12 percent of its 12,000-strong work force in Maryland -- notices start going out this Friday -- sent waves of fear and anxiety reverberating across this region. And no wonder: The layoffs will affect Westinghouse units in Linthicum, where 9,500 people work; Hunt Valley (1,800); Annapolis (750); Sykesville (300), and Columbia (60).
You didn't even have to work at Westinghouse, the state's largest manufacturing employer, to realize the chilling impact this will have. The downsizing will affect many who never worked for the firm. Michael S. Lofton, economic development director in Anne Arundel County, estimates the multiplier effect of these layoffs could lead to twice as many layoffs in businesses that serve Westinghouse or its employees.
Since the late 1980s, the company has been working to remake itself from primarily a Department of Defense supplier to a 50-50 split between government and commercial work by 1995. Westinghouse is now into everything from air traffic control systems to burglar alarms to "smart" cash registers that track inventory for restaurants and hotels. It even is pressing the state to let it run BWI Airport in partnership with Lockheed Corp.
But the recession has proved a drag on these new Westinghouse ventures even as losses in defense work undercut its core profitability.
This marks the third round of major surgery for Westinghouse. About 1,200 employees were laid off in February 1991 and 1,300 more last December. Those 3,900 people alone would comprise the 14th or 15th largest company in Maryland.
Presidential candidate Ross Perot has spent a considerable amount of time this campaign lamenting the bleak prospects for bright college graduates seeking jobs. While that is indeed unfortunate, those newly minted collegians don't have the financial and family obligations of workers in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. The Westinghouse layoffs thus create far more economic distress.
To the company's credit, it has sought to place laid-off workers with other firms. But the reality is that it's very hard to re-create the types of white-collar positions that Westinghouse provided, especially during a prolonged recession.
Both the state and Westinghouse should do what they can to help these individuals find employment. Their uncertain futures parallel those of a company, and a region, in transformation.