Lockheed Martin Corp. plans to add 200 high-paying engineering jobs at its Orlando simulation-and-training unit — the company's largest increase in its Central Florida work force in at least a decade, Lockheed officials said this week.
Many of the jobs pay salaries of $90,000 and higher — more than twice the region's average — according to local industry experts.
Amid the defense-budget crunch, Lockheed's move is seen as a vote of confidence for Orlando's high-tech-training sector, which develops war-game simulators for the armed forces.
"The company considered a number of other sites before selecting Orlando for these jobs," said Dale Bennett, executive vice president of Lockheed's Mission Systems & Training, the Washington, D.C.-based division that includes the Orlando unit. "It clearly made sense for this work to be in Central Florida, with its tremendous focus on modeling, simulation and training."
The 200 positions are tied to flight-training-simulator programs for F-15 and F-16 fighter jets. The jobs would be a 12 percent boost to Lockheed's local simulation business, which employs 1,700 in east Orange County.
The Bethesda, Md.-based defense giant is moving the jobs during the next year from Akron, Ohio, where it plans to shutter a longtime plant in a cost-saving consolidation.
In coming months, Lockheed Martin will determine how many of the jobs will be filled by workers who transfer from Akron and how many will be filled by other applicants, executives said. The company would not confirm salaries, which it said have yet to be determined.
Lockheed is the biggest player in Central Florida's simulation industry, which is considered the country's largest cluster of training companies and military-contract agencies. More than 30,000 jobs in the region are tied directly or indirectly to simulation work, according to economic-development estimates.
But with tens of billions of dollars in defense-spending cuts still in the works, local industry officials worry that military-training commands at the Central Florida Research Park could be closed as part of the military's consolidation. If Orlando loses those agencies, they say, many simulation companies would also leave, and the industry would be decimated.
A coalition of leaders is seeking state funding to pre-empt that threat. The requested money would help build a new complex at the research park where military operations could be relocated from elsewhere in the country. In effect, the expansion could help Orlando gain new operations — instead of losing them — if the Pentagon launches a new round of base consolidation, they say.
Lockheed's latest work-force additions should bolster that effort, said Roger Handberg, a defense expert and political-science professor at the University of Central Florida.
"This is a good signal for Central Florida," he said. "It means Lockheed doesn't anticipate that the various military-training commands in the research park are going to be shut down or moved away. Of course, you never know. Everything is political when it comes to those kinds of decisions."
Still, the value of high-tech training can't be underestimated during a downturn in defense spending, Handberg said. He noted Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's speech this week in which he announced plans to dramatically reduce the number of troops and rely more on high-tech warfare.
"That means they will have to train our troops more efficiently and more effectively, which is the role that simulation plays well," he said.
Despite cuts of several hundred jobs from 2008 to 2010, Lockheed's Orlando work force has remained relatively stable during the past decade — both during the defense-budget run-up for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and since the pullback in war operations under the Obama administration.
The simulation unit has undergone two reorganizations in recent years. The latest one eliminated 20 jobs in Orlando and moved its headquarters to Washington.
Lockheed's Missiles & Fire Control Orlando unit — its largest Florida site — has landed billions of dollars' worth of new contracts in recent years to support its work force. The unit employs about 4,400 at its Sand Lake Road facilities and 1,000 at an Ocala electronics plant.