The planned layoff of 350 workers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel could presage a new round of job losses at other area defense and aerospace firms, defense and economic analysts say.
The cutbacks at one of Maryland's largest defense contractors, effective in August, come at a time when the aerospace industry projects a loss of 34,000 jobs nationally because of a drop in Pentagon and civil aviation spending.
"What we are seeing here is a new type of retrenchment," said Michael Conte, head of the Regional Economic Studies Program at University of Baltimore. "This is the beginning of the cuts."
Said David Napier, an analyst with the Aerospace Industries Association, a Washington-based trade group: "The near future, at least, doesn't look good."
Although no defense or aerospace industry trade group tracks employment on a state-by-state basis, three Maryland businesses alone -- Lockheed Martin (formerly Martin Marietta), Westinghouse and AAI -- have lost 12,000 jobs since 1988.
Until this week, APL, Howard County's largest private employer, had bucked that trend. It did so through what had been a stable Navy contract that accounted for the lion's share of its budget, which totaled $467 million in 1994.
This year, however, the lab's total funding will drop to $407 million, the result of a cutback in the Navy contract and the completion of several long-term, high-paying government projects.
APL officials now say that more nondefense projects are necessary if the 3,450-worker lab -- which conducts high-level research on submarines, missiles and satellites -- is to avoid further layoffs.
"We are intending to stay primarily defense related -- that's what we have done for 53 plus years," said Gary L. Smith, APL director. "But we know that our current sponsors will not be able to sustain funding levels of past years."
Last year, APL's civilian contracts brought in $27 million, or about 6 percent of the lab's business. In addition, the lab has been doing a small, but growing, amount of nondefense work funded through the Navy contract.
For example, under the Navy contract APL this year began anti-counterfeiting research in a 10-year agreement with the U.S. Treasury Department's Bureau of Engraving and Printing. That agreement is worth $750,000 in its first year.
The lab also has $7.5 million worth of transportation projects, including a natural-gas-powered vehicle. Researchers say the car will help improve air quality and reduce dependence on foreign oil.
In addition, APL has designed a vehicle crash detection system that would send a signal to emergency vehicles indicating the location of an accident immediately after it happens.
"What we're trying to do is position the lab for the future . . . to put ourselves in the best posture we can," said Dr. Smith.
None of that will help the 350 employees who are expected to begin receiving layoff notices by the end of May. Lab officials have said the reductions will be made across-the-board. APL workers have been on the job an average of 14 years, according to a spokeswoman, and 49 percent live in Howard County.
The lab plans to offer counseling for employees who lose their jobs and will hire a consultant to help them draft resumes, prepare for interviews and find jobs. Fax machines, computers, telephone lines and lists of jobs also will be made available.
"It's a painful process," Dr. Smith said. "We will have a very carefully constructed employee assistance program."
Elizabeth Hintzman, an assistant director for administrative services at APL, said her department is holding 10 sessions to explain the layoffs in more detail. She said APL's staff are "preoccupied" with the layoff announcement. "You can't just say, 'Whoopee, I might not be here tomorrow,' " Ms. Hintzman said.
Employee Bobbie Johnston's reaction may be typical. An administrative specialist who has worked at APL since 1981, Ms. Johnston said that Monday's announcement was "unnerving, but it really wasn't a big surprise. Now we look to our alternatives. We can't stay out of work."
But for some with backgrounds in engineering and physics, the chance of finding employment in their field again in Howard County, or even Maryland, isn't promising, experts say.
"Someone with a physics or a signal engineering degree could very well end up never using that degree again," said Mr. Conte of the University of Baltimore. "There is just no demand for such people."
And while the total layoffs at APL represent only a fraction of Howard County's 110,000 jobs, their significance is magnified by the fact that skilled physicists and engineers earn between $40,000 and $90,000, Mr. Conte said.
But Raymond S. Wacks, county budget administrator, said he does not expect the layoffs to make a huge dent in the county's already sluggish economy.
"They are our largest employer, but it's not like we are losing a base industry," he said. "It's a storm, but we'll weather it. We're not a one-industry county."
Added Mr. Napier: "APL has a very good reputation, so all of their work isn't going to go away."