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Space Workers Struggle A Year After Last Shuttle

James Peek, a 48-year-old quality inspector for the shuttles, has applied for 50 positions with no success since he was laid off in October 2010. He has taken odd jobs glazing windows for a luxury hotel in Orlando and working as a security guard. He has no health insurance and incurred a $13,000 bill when he was hospitalized for three days last May.

"With most companies, it's like your application goes into a black hole," Peek said. "We're struggling to stay afloat."

Jobless space workers have signed up for Brevard Workforce's job placement and training services. Slightly more than half of the 5,700 workers the agency has been able to track have found jobs, but more than a quarter of those positions were outside Florida. Those jobs have been in the fields of engineering, mechanics and security, according to the agency.

Brevard County's unemployment rate spiked in the months that the shuttle program wound down, going from 10.6 percent in April 2011 to 11.7 percent in August 2011. It has since declined to 9 percent, a result of a smaller workforce as many former shuttle workers either moved away or retired earlier than planned. Brevard County has added 2,700 jobs since the beginning of the year, but many are in the southern part of the 72-mile-long county where information technology giant Harris Corp. and airplane-maker Embraer are located. Jobless space workers in the northern part of the county jokingly refer to those high-tech workers as "their rich cousins."

Some local employers are finding that the former space workers' salary demands are sometimes too high.

"STOP sending former Space Center employees," one employer wrote to Brevard Workforce, the local job agency, in a comment included in its monthly committee report. "They have an unrealistic salary expectation."

Taxpayer money allocated for job training programs for displaced space shuttle workers also is dwindling a year after the program ended.

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