A Northrop Grumman technician assembles the fuselage of an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

A Northrop Grumman technician assembles the fuselage of an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Northrop Grumman

US Defense Firms Hiring Thousands Amid Record Unemployment  

Pentagon spending on missiles, satellites, and nuclear weapons fuels a production boom, as firms fight off commercial aerospace downturn.

As U.S. unemployment reached its highest level since the Great Depression amid the coronavirus pandemic, some of America’s largest defense firms are hiring thousands of workers to build fast-flying missiles, satellites and nuclear weapons.

Even amid nationwide social distancing practices, companies are interviewing job candidates through video conferencing and other technology as they look to fill positions on national security projects that Pentagon leaders want to keep on schedule.

“[W]e recognize that providing jobs during this period of economic downturn is also critically important,” Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson said last month on the company’s quarterly earnings call. “We are committed to continued hiring during this crisis.”

Lockheed, the world’s largest defense company, already has hired more than 2,365 new employees since March when many U.S. companies began furloughing or layoff workers amid coronavirus stay-at-home orders. In addition, Lockheed is “actively recruiting for over 4,600 roles,” in 39 states and Washington, D.C., the company said in a statement Friday.

Northrop Grumman says it could hire as many 10,000 this year. Raytheon Technologies another 2,000. Boeing, which is preparing to cut 10 percent of its 160,000-employee workforce as the airlines predict at least a three-year drop in sales, is advertising more than 600 open positions in the United States, largely in its defense, space, cybersecurity and intelligence units.

While General Dynamics’ private jet maker Gulfstream is laying off nearly 700 workers in Savannah, Georgia, the company is advertising more than 3,500 open positions within its Information Technology, Mission Systems, Land Systems and shipbuilding units. BAE Systems is advertising more than 1,300 open positions in the United States.

The coronavirus recession is hurting companies that build commercial aircraft parts since many airlines no longer need new planes as passenger travel has fallen 96 percent. Some firms, like Raytheon Technologies, the company formed by the merger of Raytheon and United Technologies last month, are considering shifting employees from commercial to defense work.

“[W]e are actively working to try and take engineering talent and other talent that we’ve got in the legacy [United Technologies commercial] business and move those folks over to programs on the Raytheon side,” CEO Gregory Hayes said Thursday on the company’s quarterly earnings call.

Pay cuts, furloughs and a hiring freeze has hit Raytheon Technologies' commercial business, a major supplier to planemakers. But it’s a different story on the defense side of the house where there are 2,000 job openings. Last month, the Air Force chose Raytheon to build a new nuclear cruise missile, a project Hayes said could be worth $10 billion over its lifetime.

In recent years, Lockheed has been expanding its missiles and space businesses as the Pentagon has increased focus and spending in these sectors.

“We’re recruiting talent for everything from internships, to early careers to experienced professionals,” Jean Wallace, the company’s vice president of workforce solutions, said in an emailed statement. “In particular, we’re looking to fill five priority critical skill areas: RF engineering, software engineering, systems engineering, electrical engineering, and advance manufacturing operations.”

Northrop Grumman, the fourth-largest U.S. defense company, expects “significant headcount growth this year because of the program volume increases… sales growth, as well as the anticipated awards in the latter half of this year,” CEO Kathy Warden said on the company’s quarterly earnings call last week.

The company also has been increasingly winning classified contracts as the U.S. military has shifted spending to develop new weapons to counter China. Northrop is building a new stealth bomber and a new intercontinental ballistic missile for the Air Force.

“We are actively recruiting for 10,000 open positions and we hired more than 3,500 people in the first quarter, which included more than 1,300 new hires in March,” Warden said.

That said, those 10,000 might not all materialize as attrition rates drop as the broad job market contracts. A portion of those positions that would only make it on the books should Northrop win new government contracts.

“[W]e only do that hiring if we indeed get those awards as we look forward,” Warden said.