Aerospace machinist Jamil Couzens (center) alleges racial discrimination in the industry's hiring practices
Increased federal spending in the defense industry over the coming years could lead to a sizable production boost for San Diego's aerospace industry. But a group of activists organized by the local chapter of Al Sharpton's National Action Network worry that otherwise-qualified minority workers will be left without a chance to take advantage of the industry's rising tide.
"San Diego is the second-leading aerospace industry hub in the United States," says National Action Network vice president Jared Moten. "Congress has quietly passed a $165 billion spending increase in defense spending — of that, $9.2 billion will be coming to San Diego. We're looking for equity for blacks and Latinos in that spending."
Jamil Couzens, who's spent the past 30 years as a skilled aerospace machinist, is concerned that won't be the case.
"The statistics as far as what San Diego looks like in manufacturing are staggering. We currently have a workforce in the sector totaling upwards of 60,000, and these are not degreed positions — they only require a certificate and on-the-job training," Couzens notes.
"On average, these positions pay a salary of $110,000 a year, and that's where I see the biggest disparate impact on our community. If you look at the demographics of the city, we're 37 percent Latino and 5 percent African American, yet combined only 1 percent of that population has a footprint in advanced manufacturing."
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and resulting aviation downturn, Couzens was laid off from his job at a major aerospace plant just months after receiving a positive performance review and a raise. He's since had trouble getting hired with a large firm, iso he’s worked with smaller outfits that don't offer the same health and retirement benefits.
"It took me 13 years before I could even get an interview with General Atomics. At this point in my career I have nearly 40 years of experience as a machinist in an advanced manufacturing capacity," says Couzens.
In 2016, Couzens filed a lawsuit accusing General Atomics of racial discrimination over the course of more than a decade. In the suit, he says he applied for numerous positions beginning in 2002, some of which were well below his level of qualification. At the time, General Atomics requested that applicants identify themselves by race — despite job postings remaining active, Couzens never received a response to any of his applications.
By 2014, Couzens had been working for nine years at a smaller shop but decided again to try his luck with General Atomics, which still advertised many of the same positions open from a decade prior. This time there was no question on the application about race, and he soon was called in for a three-part interview with two human resources directors and a shop manager.
Though all parties allegedly agreed he'd be a good fit and the shop manager even offered him a site tour of his future workshop, HR stopped responding to his inquiries. A few weeks later, rejection letters started rolling in — while the positions Couzens had applied for remained open. In his legal complaint, Couzens notes that of the 60 or so machinists he encountered on the shop floor, only one was African American.
"Since [9/11], our [minority] numbers have continued to go down, even while the workforce goes up. Companies are now claiming that they can't find machinists, programmers, CAD [computer-aided design] operators — they're not looking. Or they're not looking in the right places, because San Diego is surrounded by three military bases, and all branches of the military have trained machinists and the like leaving service. If you can't find qualified blacks and Latinos from that pool, you're just not trying."
For its part, General Atomics filed a response generally denying Couzens’s claims, citing 27 possible defenses they might pursue in court. A trial is tentatively set for early June.
National Action Network president Shane Harris says of his group's new initiative, “We're taking aim at top individuals within these companies. I'll be asking about their hiring practices and about the diversity plans they need to have in place. We anticipate that they're going to admit problems with knowing where and who to hire — we want to be there to offer help.
"Our hope and our goal is that they will say that groups like ours should be at the table and that we'll find a commitment to equity in communities of color."