Job growth continues in technology

Demand likely to exceed supply for much-needed temporary workers

January 24, 1999|By William Patalon III | William Patalon III,Sun Staff

When it comes to job-hunting in Maryland this year, technology is hot, while manufacturing and government are not.

Maryland -- which employs about 2.3 million people -- has enjoyed good job growth over the past four years: slow but steady at first and accelerating this year. Indeed, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for November was 4.3 percent, down from 4.9 percent in November 1997. That's a trend both economists and employment recruiters see continuing this year. But that growth will come in select sectors, with anything related to technology leading the pack.

"Clearly, far and away, that's the hottest sector in terms of employment opportunities," said Mike Funk, a research economist at Towson University's Regional Economic Studies Institute (RESI).

For the four quarters ended in March 1998, the most recent figures available, job growth in the computer- and data-processing-services category leapt 9.2 percent. The category has grown an average of 4.7 percent the past five years and is forecast to jump 7 percent this year, Funk said.

"I'd be hard-pressed to come up with anything that's clearly that hot," he said.

Manufacturing, by comparison, which has seen employment in Maryland fall steadily since 1982, is expected to hold steady, not adding significantly to its 1998 base of about 179,000 jobs, according to RESI.

If there's any problem with the technology sector at all, it's that -- like other parts of the country -- there's a severe deficit of workers, especially top-tier candidates, officials with employee placement companies said. But the state is increasingly being viewed favorably for its comfortable lifestyle, and its Interstate 270 high-tech corridor continues to build a national name, said Scott Price, Baltimore branch manager of the Philadelphia-based CDI Corp. placement firm.

Indeed, when the companies here can attract qualified technology workers, they often can keep them because Maryland is viewed as a nice place to live.

However, this may change as Generation-Xers continue to enter the job market, said Brendan Courtney, an area director for Interim Financial Solutions, a local unit of the Fort Lauderdale-based Interim Services, a placement agency with $2 billion in annual revenue and an office on East Baltimore Street.

In other markets, these Gen-Xers have proven to be high-tech Hessians, selling their services to the highest bidder and moving from one company to another as soon as a better offer comes along. Those Silicon Valley mercenaries eschew benefits and job security for high pay and the chance to keep working with the newest technology.

That trend toward job-hopping is starting to show itself here in Maryland, Courtney said, and is something with which local firms must learn to deal.

Coupled with a growth in technology is an increased need for engineers, recruiters say.

RESI's Funk said employment in engineering services jumped 6 percent for the 12 months ended in March, and is expected to grow 3.3 percent in 1999. And those engineers have to be highly skilled, too -- not just in the tenets of physics, electronics or mechanics that define a device, but in the computer technology that's increasingly being used to design the device.

Today, to save money, reduce mistakes and bring products to market quicker, design and manufacturing are becoming a more "seamless" process, with all the design and then the metal-cutting work being done on computer.

"Any manufacturing engineer has to -- by definition -- be comfortable with high-technology," said E.H. "Ted" Verdery, chairman and chief executive officer of Environmental Elements Corp., a Baltimore-based firm that designs and installs pollution control systems for companies and power plants worldwide.

Because technical or technological skills are in such demand, an increasing number of college students are enrolling in information-technology curriculums, said Interim Services' Courtney. The upshot: A shortage of new talent in the finance and accounting arenas. That's created a big opportunity for firms such as Interim, which not only help companies recruit full-time workers, but provide temporary workers, too. In fact, companies big and small are increasingly turning to so-called "temp" workers because it allows the firms to add or subtract personnel as projects or their workload dictates -- without actually having to hire and fire, incurring liabilities for benefits such as health care, retirement plans or severance packages.

Business services as an employment category grew by 16,000 jobs during the 12 months that led up to the end of March, RESI's Funk said, and recruiters don't see that trend slowing a bit.

"Right now, we don't have enough people to place" in temporary jobs, Courtney said. "The 'interim' work force is getting big -- but not nearly as big as demand could allow it to be."

Government job growth will be nothing to speak of in the new year, RESI's Funk said. Federal employment will hold steady. State employment is expected to grow at less than 1 percent and local government employment, which grew at 2 percent in 1998, is forecasted to grow at only 1 percent this year.

Retail service jobs, which account for about 19 percent of all employment in Maryland, grew at only 1.8 percent in 1998, despite all the new retail construction that's taken place in the state. That job growth will slow to about 1.3 percent this year, Funk said.

And skilled trades -- composed mainly of construction jobs such as carpenters, plumbers, electricians and steam-fitters -- also will see growth slow: from 3.3 percent last year to 2.5 percent in 1999.

"Maryland has a higher concentration of these workers here than in the rest of the country," Funk said.

Pub Date: 01/24/99

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