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Lockheed Martin To Add 400 More Fort Worth Workers In F-35 Hiring Binge

U.S. Air Force
Airmen from the 33rd Maintenance Group perform checks on an F-35A Lightning II at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth factory has already added 1,800 workers in the past year. And on Monday, the aerospace giant held a hiring fair to add 400 more workers to its Fort Worth workforce.

The Maryland-based defense company needs the labor as it ramps up production of the F-35, its next-generation stealth fighter jet.

Despite the blustery weather, people started lining up in the wee hours of the morning outside the Sheraton hotel in downtown Fort Worth. By 6:45, the parade of aspiring airplane builders was four blocks long — and that was just the people who hadn’t registered. More than a thousand had applied ahead of time.

Inside a hotel conference room, a couple dozen staffers spent the day interviewing droves of applicants, offering the best candidates a letter of intent and putting them on track for a job building brand-new fighter jets.

Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA News
At its longest, the line to get into Lockheed Martin's hiring event in Fort Worth, the company's fifth such event since last year. More than 1,000 people who had been pre-screened weren't included in this line.

The company offered letters to more than 500 people in order to get their 400 workers, with the assumption that some will take other job offers or fail the required aptitude test, background check and drug screening.

“Finally, I got in the door,” said a grinning Isiah Williams of Fort Worth, who got one of those letters of intent.

Williams learned the aircraft mechanic trade in the Air Force in the '90s, and has worked in aerospace for years. He says he’s been waiting for the right moment to apply to Lockheed, and now he’s thrilled he might work on the latest fighter jet.

“If you are inspired by engineering or mechanics or electronics, aviation is always going to twist your head up,” Williams said.

Erin Dobbs-Wesley says she never dreamed she’d end up building airplanes as a kid. She says she wanted to be a singer, taught school for a while, and now works at the GM factory in Arlington. Now, she may soon go from building SUVs to stealth fighters.

“I told them whatever they need, I don’t care, just put me somewhere and I will work,” Dobbs-Wesley said, holding her letter of intent.

Credit Brett Clashman / U.S. Air Force
U.S. Air Force
Capt. Brad Matherne conducts preflight checks inside an F-35A Lightning II before a training mission April 4 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.

Lockheed Martin already has the third-biggest workforce in Fort Worth, more than 15,200 people, who mostly work on the F-35 program. And Lockheed estimates the program adds more than $7 billion a year to the North Texas economy between its workers and the 69 different companies in the area supply parts for the planes.

About 310 F-35s have already rolled out of the sprawling 7.9 million-square-foot factory so far, and is ramping up production.

“Last year, we built 66. This year we’re on track to build 91,” said company spokesman Kenneth Ross. “Next year, we’ll be in the 120 range, and we’re going to keep going up and with that, we’re building out the production line in Fort Worth.”

The F-35 is reported to be the costliest U.S. weapons program, with a more than $400 billion price tag to develop and build about 2,400 planes. It’s designed to be a versatile and higher-tech replacement for the F-16, which was first built in the 1970s. Nearly a dozen other countries have already purchased F-35s, with Israel reported to be the first to use one in combat.  

Early on, Lockheed drew criticism for delays and ballooning costs while it was being developed, including from Donald Trump before he took office. After meetings at the White House between President Trump and Lockheed CEO Marilyn Hewson, the price of each plane has gone down.

The latest batch of the version used by the Air Force, the F-35A, is the least expensive at just under $95 million. (Two other models built for the Marines and the Navy have different capabilities and cost even more.) That’s down from $102 million, though The New York Times reports it’s hard to parse how much of those savings came from tough negotiation and which are the product of growing efficiencies as the company scales up production.

Lockheed is working to get the price of the F-35A under $85 million by next year.

Credit Joely Santiago / U.S. Air Force
U.S. Air Force
An F-35 Lightning II flies over Destin, Fla., before landing at its new home at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

The people given letters of intent on Monday can expect to earn between $40,000 and $55,000 a year working as machinists, assemblers and mechanics, and as "Low-Observable Material Coaters." Those last are workers who apply a stealth coating to the fighter jet so to help it evade radar detection.

“It is what shapes what the electronic signature or radar signature is that that aircraft is going to be subject to,” Ross said, adding that if the stealth coating isn’t done just right, the jet won’t be very stealth.

Breeyah Baylor of Fort Worth, who received a letter of intent, says she learned to be a perfectionist in the 10 years she spent assembling a number of different airplanes for Triumph Aerostructures in Grapevine. Baylor says she left Triumph to go to school, and had a baby who’s now 2 months old.

“Right now I’m unemployed, and I’m a stay-at-home mom,” Baylor said. “So having a job, I don’t have to depend on anybody to do anything. I can do things for myself.”

Asked what she’ll do to celebrate, Baylor says she plans to take a nap. With a new baby, she says, sleep is better than champagne.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.