Raytheon expanding Diné facility, adding jobs

James Fenton
An unidentified worker at Raytheon Missile Systems' Dine facility is pictured at work in May. A $5 million expansion project at the facility is in the works.

FARMINGTON — As bombing campaigns against the Islamic State have intensified in Iraq and Syria, a local facility that makes weapons parts for the world's largest missile manufacturer is expanding to keep up with demand.

Raytheon Missile Systems' Diné facility is getting a new 30,000-square-foot, 40-foot-tall warehouse, a north-side roadway dedicated for truck traffic, employee parking lots and secure outdoors storage areas, according to officials with the company.

The U.S. defense contractor is also in the process of adding about 70 jobs — assembly line operators, engineers, supervisors and managers — by the end of the year to the 280 workers it employs currently, according to Matthew Ryan, plant manager at the facility.

Expected to be completed by early 2017, the $5 million expansion project will increase the facility's ability to make weapons parts.

"We're building a few new parts numbers, and we're increasing the numbers of parts produced," Ryan said. "There's a growth in demand for precision weapons throughout the world, especially with the ISIS situation. A lot of these products are used weekly, daily and shipped right into war-front areas."

Ryan said that attacks by U.S. and allied forces against ISIS targets have ramped up recently, which has depleted bomb and missile stockpiles, leading to a sharp uptick in demand for more.

Raytheon Missile Systems' soon-to-expanded Dine facility is pictured on Friday south of Farmington.

"Early 2015, munitions inventories worldwide were starting to be expended at a very rapid rate," Ryan said. "A lot of this was ISIS based."

Garrett J. Olszewski, factory operations manager at the facility, said the expansion has been possible because of the collaboration between the company, community and Navajo Nation.

Employees at the facility build sub-component missile parts for about 11 major missile programs used by the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy and Army, including Tomahawk cruise missiles for the U.S. Navy, the Javelin Weapon System for the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, and the Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile used by multiple branches of the military.

Located seven miles south of Farmington, the facility is surrounded by farmland off N.M. Highway 371 in the NAPI Industrial Park, across the highway from the tribal agribusiness' headquarters.

In April, the facility received the Navajo Nation Industry Business of the Year award at the 2016 Navajo Nation Economic Summit in Arizona.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye approved the company's selection of the Jaynes Corporation of Farmington to do the expansion project. In October, the tribal government approved a $300,000 increase to the project. The tribe paid for the construction of the existing facility and is spending $3.6 million for the project. It leases the facility to Raytheon.

A $200,000 grant of capital outlay LEDA, or Local Economic Development Act, funding also covered design work for the project, Ryan said.

A worker and supervisor are pictured in May at Raytheon Missile Systems' Dine facility south of Farmington.

Begaye praised the facility's work force in a press release.

"Safety, security, professionalism and respect are hallmarks of the Raytheon Diné team," Begaye said in the release. "Raytheon’s efficient and effective manufacturing practices make the company a clear choice as a best business."

Currently, about 280 people — 93 percent of whom are Navajo — work in two shifts, six days a week, at the facility, Ryan said.

The production workers are called "technical artisans," a term Ryan said is indicative of the fine motor skills the mostly Navajo work force demonstrates on the job.

Only 10 percent of the facility's production lines are automated, he said.

"It is a tremendous work force here," Ryan said. "We'll put 'em up against any warehouse staff anywhere."

Payroll and benefits at the facility this year will exceed $20 million, he said.

During a tour of the facility on Friday, supervisor Milford Joe, 48, said pride is what drives him after 26 years of working there.

"I do it, I work here, for the war fighter," he said. "I'm proud of that. And that it's local."

Raytheon opened the facility here because of the skills that Navajo workers have in abundance, Ryan said. Navajo people are noted silversmiths, jewelry makers and rug weavers, and those skills and are consistent with the fine parts manufacturing at the facility, he said.

"Those cultural practices and professions really translate well to what we do here," Ryan said. "What we build really have to be exactly right. Because we know who's using it — family members in harm's way, who we support — and our support has to be flawless."

A majority of the workers in assembly production are women, Ryan said.

Gabrielle Sales, 35, has worked at the facility for 10 years, a job that she takes pride in, she said. Her aunt and grandmother used to work at the facility, and they recommended she work there.

Sales, who lives in Shiprock, sat at her work station on the assembly floor weaving thick strands of wires and threading them into tiny points in connective parts within a metal housing. Sales' hands moved in circular gestures as she directed dozens of wires simultaneously into circuits within a housing for a weapon part.

Olszewski, who stopped to note Sales' movements and precision, described her work as "absolutely amazing" and "like watching a ballet."

Sales routes hundreds of wires a day into connectors on a harness, stripping them, snipping them, soldering them, attaching contact pieces on them, then laying them into a central housing. She said she enjoys the work because it utilizes many skills she has.

"I really enjoy coming to work every day. I like what I do," Sales said. "I used to be an artist, drawing, and I weave. My mom taught me how to weave. I'm a bit of a perfectionist. Like my mom says when she finishes a rug, 'You don't just want to put it together and sell it to anyone ... it's got your name on it. You want to represent yourself.'"

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.