Technology companies looking for help They vie for hires because supply is low

October 14, 1997|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

It's hard running a company with a skeleton crew.

Patrick Huddie and Wayne Moore, founders of Microcosm Inc., a Columbia scientific instruments company with nine workers, need to hire five employees quickly -- but the vacancies have gone unfilled for three months.

There's stiff competition for the people Microcosm needs to hire: The 8,000 high technology companies around the state have about 15,000 job openings, according to the High Technology Council of Maryland.

The bulk of those openings are in Howard County and its neighbors in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, the council says.

And solutions are far off -- too far off for companies such as Microcosm, whose vacancies could stunt its growth, its founders say.

"We're reaching the point where we're ready for lift-off, but we're beginning to feel limited," Huddie says. "We just want to see resumes. We could build our business a lot faster if we had these people."

Moore said, "It's especially difficult to hire right now because we're looking for people with special skills. And these people aren't unemployed."

The high technology sector has grown phenomenally. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 95,000 new computer scientists, programmers and system analysts will be needed each year until 2005.

With an estimated 190,000 technical job openings nationwide, demand is outstripping supply. In 1994, only 24,553 students in the nation graduated with an undergraduate degree in a technology field, according to the latest federal data.

For workers with technology experience, its a buyer's market.

Companies are investing time and money in a full-blown recruiting war with other companies that want the same small pool of trained employees who have their pick of hundreds of employers.

GTCO Corp. in Columbia needs experienced workers, said President Steve Kaye.

The 60-employee computer company recently created three engineering jobs because of new products it's developing, he said. The positions require at least five years experience, and there's no time to wait for the work force to mature, he says.

Its short-term solution is to hire needed talent away from other companies. The company has put notices in newspapers, posted its listings on the Internet and hired headhunters.

"In the beginning, we were able to get just a little bit more work out of the people we already had," Kaye said. "But now, we really need to start adding staff.

"We hope it's not a war, just a small battle."

The shortage of trained workers results from a healthy national economy, a low joblessness rate and a growing high technology sector, industry experts say.

In the early 1990s, the high-tech industry struggled during the recession, and companies began to lay off workers, said Pat Arnold of the state labor market analysis and information office.

The industry experienced a slow recovery, as workers who questioned their job security with larger companies began to start their own. But the industry has bounced back strongly during the past two years, and spin-offs and larger companies are now competing for the same workers, Arnold said.

From 1995 to 1996, employment in Maryland's high technology industry grew at 2.5 percent while overall employment in the private sector grew 1.6 percent, according to Arnold's office.

"The growth rate in high tech could be more impressive if there wasn't a labor shortage," he said.

The history of Microcosm offers a snapshot of what has happened in the industry.

Moore said for much of 1988 to 1991 he was unemployed. With Huddie, he founded the scientific instruments company in 1994, after each spent six months at another technology company in Annapolis Junction.

Since then, Microcosm has grown rapidly.

In 1994, the company's three employees worked out of ...

...

TC 3,000-square-foot space. Two years later, the company moved to a space in Columbia triple in size and expanded to nine employees.

Companies such as Microcosm compete not only with other high-tech companies, but also industries such as banking and insurance that need highly skilled technology workers, said Dyan Brasington, executive director of the High Technology Council of Maryland, which represents about 550 of the 8,000 companies in Maryland.

"Everyone needs the knowledge-based worker who speaks different kinds of computer languages," Brasington said. "So much of what society does is information-based."

Industry experts also say the shortage can be attributed to a ruptured pipeline -- not enough college students are graduating with technology degrees.

The Maryland high-tech council has about a half-dozen or so education initiatives to introduce students to technology fields.

Microcosm is recruiting Howard County high school students as volunteers and offers paid summer internships to college students, Moore and Huddie said.

"Teen-agers are hard to manage, but once they focus on something, it's amazing," Moore said. "Give them space, machinery, soda pop and cookies, tell them what to do and they will do it."

Huddie said, "We hope it fires them up for technology."

Pub Date: 10/14/97

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