One hundred years ago, Los Angeles residents stood at the corner Wilshire and Fairfax — today a bustling mid-city intersection — watching planes buzz overhead towards a landing in the adjacent runway of the newly established Charlie Chaplin airfield. Since then, the footprint of the region’s aerospace industry has shifted, and the airfield is long-gone. But, the region’s position at the forefront of advances in air and space remains as strong as ever.
From the very beginning, the area’s growth has been closely linked to that of the aerospace industry. In the World War II era, Southern California was central to the country’s war efforts: 300,000 airplanes were produced by the region’s 2 million aerospace employees. After the war, SoCal’s defense linkages remained strong as missile production and other advanced technologies gained importance throughout the Cold War. The region’s fortunes were especially buoyed by its incredible talent base linked to institutions like UCLA, CalTech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
As the Cold War came to an end, SoCal’s aerospace industry began a prolonged — and oftentimes painful — transformation of its economic base. With fewer defense contracts and manufacturing shifting elsewhere, regional aerospace employment declined significantly resulting in a loss of 155,534 aerospace jobs in the area between 1990 and 2000.
Since then, the aerospace sector has redefined itself, mirroring the region’s economic evolution towards creative, high value-add occupations. In the aerospace sector, this has meant a pivot away from airplane manufacturing towards engineering and advanced R&D. Today, Southern California’s aerospace industry remains a vital artery for the local economy with the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) pegging the economic output from SoCal’s aerospace industry at more than $123 billion in 2017.
The industry’s transition towards engineering and R&D has been especially driven by regional advancements in space technology: from 2010 to 2018, firms that specialize