Best Southwest Cities for Defense Jobs

Many federal retirees continue to work after leaving federal service. Here is a report on the jobs outlook in the defense industry located in the Southwestern United States–a popular destination for retirees.

Phoenix/Tucson, AZ

The defense industry climate, like the state itself, is hot – and getting hotter. Arizona’s military strength includes installations like Davis-Monthan and Luke Air Force Bases, Yuma MCAS, which is the Marine Corps’ busiest air station, and Fort Huachuca, home to the Army Intelligence Center and the Army Network Enterprise Technology Command.  These installations have all been tasked with new missions since 2001, and thus, have drawn defense contractors to the region in droves.

Opportunities are spread throughout the state, but the majority of them are based in the Phoenix and Tucson area. Honeywell and Raytheon are two of the state’s top employers, followed by General Dynamics in Scottsdale, and Lockheed Martin in the valley. Arizona State University has also opened up new jobs, having won a $43.7 million cooperative contract with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory to develop the Army Flexible Display Center. Collectively, these firms offer great tech-related opportunities and hefty salaries to go with them.

"Security-cleared contractors specializing in systems engineering have their pick of quality jobs in Phoenix and Tucson," said Evan Lesser, Director of "In particular, mechanical and software engineers with military systems backgrounds are in continual demand. The higher the clearance level, the higher the salary they can command."

Billions of dollars in defense contracts have been pouring in over the last five years. Top contractors like Sergeant Controls & Aerospace, MER Corps., Vacuum Optics, and Airtronics all have facilities in Arizona. They also have great diversity when it comes to the products and services they offer.

Currently, the biggest focus in the region is centered on intelligence, aircraft, guided missiles and military engine manufacturing. There’s also been a recent increase in the development of unmanned aerial vehicle R&D, which has sparked opportunities at Boeing and also at Kutta Consulting, which focuses on similar technologies and avionic communications.  The upshot – industry experts project that the focus on R&D and intelligence is only going to mean greater opportunities for security-cleared personnel.

"The quantity of intelligence jobs in Arizona has doubled since 2001," said Lesser. "There is an ongoing need for skilled intelligence, counter-intelligence, and counter-terrror professionals, especially for instructors who can teach these skills to others."

Phoenix is now ranked second in the nation on Forbes best 100 cities. Better yet, the Milkins Institute ranks Phoenix the third best performing city when it comes to salaries. Management occupations typically pay above $85,000 a year, and upper managers earn six figure incomes. There’s also a healthy diversity in the housing market, with home prices around $175,000 in northwest Phoenix, up to $450,000 in Scottsdale.

Colorado Springs, CO

Nestled at the edge of the Rocky Mountains, Colorado Springs was once considered a resort community, a magnet for ski buffs and mountain climbers.  Now it’s a magnet for the defense industry.

The region has long held ties to the military, and is home to NORAD, the U.S. Air Force Academy, Schriever and Peterson Air Force Bases, U.S. Northern Command, Air Force Space Command and Fort Carson.  While the military presence drives the economy, the inter-related high-tech and defense industries are also significant contributors, with the aerospace industry at the forefront when it comes to defense jobs.

The total military workforce of active duty and reserve, along with government employees and industry workers make up 20 percent of the workforce, county wide. 

Given these demographics, Colorado Springs tends to draw a highly educated population of workers and offers an increasingly competitive and positive employment picture, particularly for security-cleared personnel. According to the Security Clearance Salary survey, area defense workers regularly report wages well above the national average for cleared candidates.

"From an economic perspective, 40 percent of this area is directly or indirectly the result of the military and defense industry, so this is definitely a great place for job seekers, particularly those with a security clearance," said Brian Binn, president of military affairs, Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce. "We have more than 35,000 active duty service members. We also find that many government and military workers don’t leave when they retire. The outlook for jobs here is excellent."

Job growth rates – which mean job opportunities – continue to rise. The latest state statistics reveal employment growth for the county surrounding Colorado Springs as double that of the state as a whole. Dozens of defense contractors have facilities in the Pike’s Peak region; among them, Aeroflex Inc., ITT, Harris Government Communications Systems and L-3 Communications.  To be more specific, Colorado has 164,500 space-related jobs. The chamber also cites a Development Research Partners study when predicting that figure will grow to 232,000 by 2010. In fact, the state has the second highest private aerospace employment concentration in the country.

Listed by Money Magazine as one of the top five best cities to live in, home prices in Colorado Springs are reasonable, with an average 2,400 sq. ft. home priced at around $240,000. The community has also developed an active volunteer task force that works to continually strengthen ties between the military and defense industry and the community.