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Disabled find niche working at company



Published: Fri, April 11, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



A successful defense subcontractor welcomes disabled workers.

WINDBER, Pa. (AP) -- After Greg Percosky injured his back in an accident, he knew he couldn't return to his job in the four-foot-high seams of a coal mine.

So he helps make some of the U.S. military's most sophisticated equipment and weapons instead.

Percosky is production manager at Kuchera Defense Systems, a company which has grown from five employees and about $100,000 in sales when it opened nine years ago, to an estimated $40 million in sales this year.

Assembling circuit cards and electronic cables as a military subcontractor, Kuchera Defense, which is housed in a warehouse in Windber, a rural borough of 4,400 people about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh, has worked on components for many of the weapons being used in Iraq, from Tomahawk and Paveway missiles to Apache helicopters.

Disabled workers

More than 40 percent of the company's 150-plus workers are disabled.

"For more than a year, I tried to find work. You were kind of labeled as handicapped. It felt like your application and resume got pushed to the side," said Percosky, 44.

That experience changed once he heard of Kuchera. "Nobody looks at us differently at all."

The company enlists disabled workers to churn out ready-to-assemble products for big-name contractors including Raytheon, McDonnell Douglas and Northrop Grumman. Without them, the business might not have been possible.

Company's history

William Kuchera, the company's president and CEO, already had an electronic manufacturing service operating in Windber when he decided to start a side business involved in defense work. The problem was how to go about it.

He learned about the Department of Defense's Mentor-Protege Program, which provides incentives to contractors if they help aspiring subcontractors who qualify as "small disadvantaged businesses." To qualify, a business needs to be owned by a woman or have at least 20 percent of its jobs filled by disabled people.

Kuchera Defense joined up with what was the defense branch of Hughes -- later acquired by Raytheon -- receiving surplus equipment, instructions and orders for work. The government (Kuchera is part of the Navy's Mentor-Protege Program) put up $7 million for training of workers, much of it at an occupational and rehabilitation center in nearby Johnstown.

Missile program equipment

"Now, we're building the electronic guidance equipment for four missile programs," said Carl Sax, executive vice president and general manager at Kuchera Defense.

Last year, the company and its sister business, Kuchera Industries, received a $44-million, five-year contract through Raytheon to assemble improved surface search radar systems for the Navy that can detect and track 250 ships at a time.

Terry Downing, program manager for special projects at Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems, said Kuchera Defense has won awards as one of the best subcontractors under the Mentor-Protege Program. There are about 150 active mentor-protege agreements nationwide.

Sax acknowledged Kuchera Defense can keep its costs -- and its prices -- lower because of its participation in the program. Its overhead and equipment costs have been helped by getting supplies from Raytheon; he said salaries are competitive in the rural area.

Glad for work

The employees say they are just glad to be working. One worker suffers from spina bifida. Another has cerebral palsy. One worker has a disability that makes it difficult for her to remember how to perform repetitive tasks for more than a half-hour, Downing said, but she can work on a computer. Now she helps buy materials for the company.




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