The Houston suburb slammed by job cuts: Will oil save it?


by Dave Fehling / KHOU 11 News

Posted on July 5, 2011 at 11:51 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jul 6 at 11:04 AM

HOUSTON -- Unemployment is still stubbornly high nationwide and in Texas. But, in one Houston suburb, there is special reason for concern as a major employer prepares to lay off over 2,000 workers this summer.

Clear Lake is a place that seems to have it all: spectacular waterfront homes -- many with boats docked right on the property, and a place where the biggest local employer sends people into space.

"I worked for seven contractors in 30 years," said Jack Baston, a systems analyst. He’s one of thousands of contractors and employees NASA is laying off.

"Thousands and not hundreds," said Veronica Reyes with Workforce Solutions, the state’s outplacement agency.

Two-thousand already, and at least that many more are set for dismissal this summer.  It has the potential for being a real “brain drain” for the Houston area, should the highly skilled workers leave to find work elsewhere.

The shuttle program is shutting down, and with it are going well-paid engineers and technicians and administrators. So serious has been the impact on the community that the Clear Creek school district has seen an uptick in kids needing free lunches and counseling.

"As much as families may try to shield their children as to what's happening around them, children are aware of it," said Elaina Polsen, spokesperson for Clear Creek ISD.

It all sounds pretty bleak, thousands of good jobs disappearing from just one Houston suburb at a time when the national recovery seems to be sputtering.

But as the first wave of laid off workers has tried to find new employment, a ray of hope has come from what has helped make Texas the leader in new jobs: oil for upwards of $100 a barrel.

"We're looking for experienced engineers," Todd O'Neal with Bastion Technologies, a Clear Lake engineering firm.

It does work not just for aerospace companies, but for oil companies too. Turns out the skills needed to work on the shuttle apply to the increasingly complex systems used to explore and drill for oil and gas.

"We can move them over from aerospace to oil and gas pretty seamlessly,” said O’Neal.

But will the jobs pay what NASA did?

"Some of them are looking at taking some cuts, some are making more, depending on what industry they're going into," said Veronica Reyes at Workforce Solutions. She said while about half the ex-NASA workers who have found jobs have had to move to other cities, the other half are finding work in Houston.

It's too early to tell, but it may be one reason the Clear Creek school district said it had 700 more students enroll this year despite the NASA layoffs and the overall weak economy. And while home prices have dropped 10 to 15 percent in Clear Lake, realtors said it could have been worse had the area’s economy not diversified.

Realtor John Nugent said growth in the nearby Port of Houston and at UTMB are lessening the hit from NASA.

"There's going to be far less impact than if this program ended 20 years ago," said Nugent.

So where does all this leave a guy like Jack Baston? He decided to re-create himself, using his baritone voice to do radio work. But in that voice, you can hear the thrill, the dream of space exploration which he reminds us, isn't over.

"Can you imagine the next 30 years? The new inventions? The new technologies?" he asked.

What might also be asked, though, is how many of the next big innovations will be developed at the Johnson Space Center, or will a “brain drain” have left it a diminished version of its former self.