Many people living in the West Valley have their ears well-attuned to the rumblings of F-16s and F-35s. Sometimes, you can see their fly-bys, too, from different Valley vantage points. For those fortunate enough to hear and/or spot Luke Air Force Base aircraft, it leaves quite an impact. As Luke AFB celebrates its 80th anniversary, the military base continues to evolve and impact the Greater Phoenix region in more ways than ever, particularly by fueling a healthy economy — with even greater economic impact expected in the years to come. And that’s saying a lot since Luke AFB already boasts and annual economic impact of $2.4 billion — the equivalent of hosting five Super Bowls each year (pre-pandemic).
In addition to housing some of the nation’s most prized fighter jets, Luke Air Force Base is home to upwards of 6,900 active duty and reserve airmen, as well as civilian employees. In 2012, the Department of Defense (DoD) designated Luke AFB as the training home of 144 new F-35A Lightning II fighter jets. According to a recent report by the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG), this mission expansion will cause population on the base to grow from 16,663 to nearly 24,000 people by 2026. Luke’s population is not only a key local and state economic driver, but it also helps support valuable employment opportunities and entices businesses near and far to relocate to Arizona.
Basic training (in Luke’s economic impact)
According to the same MAG report, by 2026, defense spending at Luke AFB will result in 13,900 jobs, $820 million in compensation and a $1.5 billion increase in gross regional product to the study area. In turn, this will generate nearly $4 billion that will be added into the region’s economy, according to Chris Camacho, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council (GPEC).
“Luke Air Force Base has — and will continue to be — a significant economic driver for not only the West Valley and Greater Phoenix, but Arizona as a whole,” Camacho says. “The ramp-up of the F-35 program will bring 2,324 new personnel to the base, along with 4,717 dependents.”
With this exponential growth, also comes direct spending by the Air Force, including major defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing — both with facilities in the West Valley — and from local businesses that provide support services.
“According to MAG’s Targeted Management Growth Plan (TGMP),” Camacho says, “at full buildout of the F-35 program, six percent of the study area’s labor force will be related to the defense industry. And, five percent of Arizona’s zip codes have a higher concentration of defense contracts than the national average, with one zip code in the study area being 32 percent higher.”
“Additionally,” adds Glendale Mayor Jerry Weiers, “base personnel contribute to the local economy by spending money on housing, education, food, cars, entertainment and much more. That support of local businesses helps the West Valley specifically, and the entire state, to draw and attract even more employers to Arizona.”
To help bolster further economic development, the West Valley received a growth planning grant from the federal government, managed by MAG, working with local stakeholders. The plan focuses on four targeted areas: housing and transportation, economic development, workforce development and education.
Saluting skilled labor of Luke personnel
One thing that sources for this story unanimously agree upon and stress is the significance that the addition of skilled labor from the personnel separating from Luke AFB and transitioning into the local civilian workforce. And the statistics reinforce the point.
“Annually, 600-plus personnel separate from Luke AFB,” says Sintra Hoffman, president and CEO of WESTMARC. “These separations are due to retirement or plans for next career steps. Either way, these individuals bring a minimum of four years of experience in their field.”
The careers for which Hoffman refers include engineering, finance, law, healthcare, and more. All of these professions directly align with the targeted industries in the West Valley Pipeline Workforce strategy.
Approximately 90 percent of the defense-related jobs created in the region by the projected expansion of the Luke Air Force Base will be in Glendale, Surprise, Goodyear and Avondale, according to the Maricopa Association of Governments.
“We’re finding many in-demand jobs seek employees with a skill set that is transferable from military positions,” Camacho says. “There are many possibilities because of the evolving ecosystem of job opportunities in Greater Phoenix. Pipeline AZ (pipelineaz.com) has skills-matching technology and virtual hiring fairs that pair incoming job seekers to real-time openings and coaches them through the transition. This includes dedicated tools for the military to help lattice their skills to in-demand jobs and find new career opportunities that might not have been originally thought of.”
Weiers, who has found great privilege in working with active duty service members as well as veterans, highlights another program that helps link separated personnel from Luke.
“One of the most exciting things happening not only at Luke but throughout the Department of Defense is the ‘Skill Bridge’ program,” he says.
Under Sky Bridge, military members who are separating from service, may leave active duty 180 days in advance to participate in internship programs with prospective employers. These service members continue to be paid by the military as part of the program, as they transition to new careers.
In addition to the population of Luke’s military personnel who remain in the Valley to enter the civilian workforce, their family members are also contributing — and adding value — to the local labor market.
“Family members possess skills and credentials that add to our local workforce, thus positioning this region to capture companies seeking to locate in the Phoenix metro area,” Hoffman says.
Wingman perks and privileges
For as much money as Luke AFB pumps into the economy and promotes economic development (directly and indirectly), the local landscape does its part to provide a place for military families to thrive (whether active, veteran or separating family members).
“Buckeye and the West Valley provide many benefits to former active Luke AFB personnel,” says Eric Orsborn, mayor of Buckeye. “Many prefer to remain living close to the military facility for access to Phoenix and medical services. Buckeye provides these benefits, as well as a relatively low cost of living, affordable housing, recreational opportunities and a great quality of life. In addition to these offerings, Greater Phoenix, the West Valley and specifically Buckeye offer a wonderful place to raise a family and provide endless opportunities for career growth and investment into one of the fastest-growing regions in the United States.”
And homes will be needed. Luke’s projected growth — in the next six years alone — will necessitate 1,713 housing units. And, most — 90 percent — of Luke AFB personnel prefer to live off base.
According to the Luke Air Force Base Targeted Growth Management Plan released in June 2020, ample off-base housing is projected to be available to qualifying military families (Rank E-5 and above). The report explains that nearby West Valley homes are also priced appropriately for military personnel of all ranks (and their partners and families).
Furthermore, the TGMP states that, “Vacant residential units contribute to the bulk of housing supply, annually contributing an average 83 percent of the overall housing supply in the study area.”
“Housing is more affordable than other parts of Maricopa County,” Hoffman says. “The West Valley is also rich with education opportunities, ranging from high-performing K-12 school districts to community college and university options.”
“Educational opportunities range from the community college level to post-graduate studies, with Arizona State University, University of Arizona, Grand Canyon University and Midwestern University, as examples,” Weiers adds. “The West Valley is also home to an array of tech schools, including Universal Technical Institute, proving more post-service training opportunities.”
Beyond the job opportunities, housing, education and other perks available to Luke personnel and their families, are a host of entertainment, recreation, sports and other diversions. And, as the base continues to grow and the economy prospers, even more offerings for military personnel and their families are likely to come to fruition.
“I remember going out to Luke Air Force Base as a young boy,” Weiers says. “I was mesmerized by the aircraft and the entire operation, and I am extremely proud that it has grown into the world’s largest Air Force base right here in Glendale.”