Johnson cites urgent need for housing

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Johnson cites urgent need for housingStewards of the Navy mission at China Lake identified an unusual threat to the local charge to support national defense during an update at last week’s IWV Economic Outlook Conference.

According to Joan Johnson, executive director of the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, her greatest concern is that Ridgecrest lacks the capacity to take in a growing number of young professionals.

“This is what I have been worrying about a lot — every single night.”

The good news is that the Navy’s role in the national security landscape is increasing, and China Lake is more relevant than ever in adding and supporting capabilities to face burgeoning global threats.

“It’s a good time to be in the Navy,” said Johnson. The $1.7-billion annual budget for China Lake continues to increase in 2018. The installation is looking to add 300 new jobs, for a total of 700 new hires (factoring in attrition).

The problem?

“We don’t have 200 rental properties that will appeal to $65,000-a-year engineers.”

Johnson said that NAWCWD has issued 100 job offers in the past three weeks.

“They are not going to find enough places … half of them are going to leave before they start working,” said Johnson. If the base loses that capacity, and that capability, “we are no longer going to be able to execute our mission.”

Johnson added that many of the young professionals are not seeking traditional single-family dwellings — but instead are in search of small, energy-efficient homes ready to be controlled and monitored by smart phones.

“The city of Ridgecrest, the Indian Wells Valley, could lose a generation of professionals and the payroll associated with them.”

Johnson said base leadership is eager to work with the community to develop right-sized homes for the incoming workforce.

She also stressed the importance of developing an attractive community to fosters retention of new recruits. Based on historical data, the area loses up to 50 percent of young professionals within the first 10 years of their careers here — making the base vulnerable to a relapse into an aging professional population.

With the “peace dividend” of the 1990s, China Lake saw a steep decline in employees (resulting in a diminished overall population in the Indian Wells Valley).

About a decade ago, Johnson’s predecessor Scott O’Neil realized that more than 50 percent of the workforce was within a few years of retirement. To capture that corporate knowledge and groom young employees to fulfill the longterm needs of the mission, NAWCWD developed and implemented a recruitment strategy that rebalanced the workforce.

“If we don’t provide quality of life on both sides of the fence, these young professionals will leave,” said Johnson.

She called on defense and community interests to rekindle the pioneering spirit that she said has thrived for 75 years to protect the Navy’s mission.

“Let’s continue our get-it-done attitude and tackle this issue together.”

The News Review reached out to Ridgecrest Area Association of Realtors and the city of Ridgecrest, both of which have acknowledged that their organizations have been doing everything they can to forestall the housing crisis. See future editions for additional reporting.

Pictured: NAWCWD Executive Director Joan Johnson — News Review file photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2018-03-02