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Boro defense contractors feel benefits of war effort

When military aircraft began flying missions over Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the impact soon trickled down to a manufacturing company that sits unobtrusively behind a small brick facade in Long Island City.

Although Kerns Manufacturing Corp. looks on the outside like a small business that fits neatly onto a road lined with homes and a firehouse, the 54,000-square-foot industrial building on 29th Street houses some of the most complex manufacturing processes one can find.

“What you’re doing is taking a lump of metal and making something out of it that’s highly complex and goes into an engine,” said Robert Arrighi, the company’s general manager, during a recent tour of the facility.

Arrighi walks the floor of the plant like a proud father, showing off a complex array of parts — most of them in the shape of circles, oddly resembling a collection of oversized baking pans — that the company makes for jet engines used on both military and commercial aircraft.

Business has been strong since the United States began its war on terror.

“Usage out in the field demands more spare parts to supply that usage,” Arrighi said. The military frequently turns to companies like Kerns to supply those parts directly.

Arrighi was among a half dozen representatives of defense contractors throughout Queens who met with U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) Feb. 20 to discuss President Bush’s proposed increases in defense spending and the issues the companies have encountered since Sept. 11.

“Although we’re not thrilled with the idea of having to increase the military budget, at the same time there is a positive fallout,” Crowley told the breakfast meeting, where he acknowledged the benefit defense spending would have on the companies assembled.

Others at the meeting agreed with Arrighi’s assessment of the state of their business. Henry David, the general manager at Ellanef Manufacturing Corp. in Corona, said a huge dropoff in orders for commercial aircraft has been offset by an increase in demand from the military.

“We’ve received a number of orders directly resulting from the amount of missions that these aircraft are flying and the number of parts that need to be replaced,” David said.

While economic benefits of the war in Afghanistan have already trickled down to local defense contractors, managers fear the repercussions of Sept. 11 may also cripple their companies as the government tightens the noose on the flow of immigrants.

Although the borough’s defense contractors are too few to have much prominence, Queens serves as an ideal location for the industry that depends heavily on highly trained immigrants to create their products. Arrighi said 37 different nationalities are represented among his 200 employees.

“These people are going to come over, they’re going to earn a living, we’re going to see to them getting proper housing, and we need their skill in a U.S. company,” Arrighi said.

But bringing in workers the legal way proves to be time-consuming and costly. When Arrighi tried to recruit some Romanian machinists, the government sat on the paperwork for so long that six months out of their two-year allowed stay had already elapsed before they were given permission to come.

“We’re concerned that 9/11 is going to ratchet it down even more,” Arrighi said. “My grandfather was a toolmaker from Italy and he immigrated to the United States. If we turn that off, we miss a source of technical talent. It’s not what our culture is based on.”

The problem of finding skilled labor is further compounded by the increasing tendency of American youth not to even consider a career in manufacturing.

The result, Arrighi fears, is that by protecting its borders, the country will ultimately lose its ability to protect itself.

“If we cut down on immigrants, it’s going to cut down on the population of highly skilled workers,” Arrighi said. “To me, it’s as much a homeland security issue as anything.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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