Employee perks take on new edge

Competition: Keeping highly skilled workers means keeping them happy with innovative benefits.

High technology

January 23, 2000|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

At USinternetworking Inc. in Annapolis, refrigerators are kept stocked with sodas and snacks for employees, Thursdays are free-pizza day, and on weekends dreamers become sailors, thanks to company-sponsored sailing lessons.

To further entice and retain top talent, the company offers up-front stock options, year-end bonus packages and soon, an in-house "university" which will offer advanced computer network, software and information technology training.

USi's perks are just one example of the steps high-technology companies in the Baltimore-Washington region are taking to create attractive work places in what is shaping up as an increasingly tight labor market this year for the industry.

Finding enough skilled workers will be tough and cost more, as experts forecast wages for technology workers will creep up. "We have to make our company very attractive to be competitive for the highly skilled people we're looking for," said Brenda Woodsmall, vice president for human resources at USi.

The single most compelling issue in the year ahead for Maryland's booming high-technology industry, say experts, will be whether companies will be able to attract and keep key talent to ensure stability and revenue growth.

A survey of 116 technology companies in Maryland, conducted by CorpTech Inc., a Woburn, Mass. technology industry research outfit, found that 41 percent expect to expand the work force this year.

On average, CorpTech's survey found, companies anticipating expansion expect employment rolls to jump a stunning 25 percent. One in six companies predicted they would boost hiring by more than 25 percent this year.

Case in point: USi, which leases business software applications through the Internet to mid-size and Fortune 1000 companies, is experiencing explosive growth. Employee ranks grew to almost 1,000 by the end of last year, up from about 375 last January. That's an average of almost two new hires every day of the week.

Woodsmall expects that sizzling pace to continue this year, thanks to new business.

Other technology companies also expect to set a brisk hiring pace this year.

PE Corp-Celera Genomics Group, a Rockville-based gene research company, anticipates hiring one new employee every day -- mostly IT engineers, scientists and bio-informatics experts to help manage its network of gene-sifting robots and computers.

CorpTech forecasts job growth will occur across the board in Maryland's technology industries, from research scientists for biotechnology companies to computer software engineers in the manufacturing and defense industries, to web site development specialists at emerging Internet outfits.

Hot spots for technology jobs this year, according to the report: Baltimore, Rockville, Bethesda and Columbia.

In fact, the study found the Mid-Atlantic region, which includes Northern Virginia, is likely to lead the nation in the creation of new technology jobs this year, followed by Northern California.

While job growth in the sector is forecast by experts, the outlook is not completely sunny. There is only a shallow pool of workers to meet the booming demand.

The Maryland High Technology Council, based in Rockville, estimates that as many as 20,000 technology-related jobs went unfilled in Maryland last year, and the trend could continue this year if the economy continues on its bullish pace.

One key reason for the big gap: There are so many new companies being started,and others expanding fast,that supply can't match demand.

Also, some of the best and brightest university graduates are lured away to cities and regions with national name recognition as high-tech hot spots, such as the San Francisco Bay area, Boston, and Austin, Texas. Technology job recruiters expect the need this year to be most acute for people with Internet-related skills, such as web site developers and architects, advanced network engineers, and those with information technology expertise.

"It's going to be a very tight labor market this year," said Megan Cutherbertson, a technical recruiter for Prism, a recruiting firm for the information technology industry with offices in Bethesda and Reston, Va.

"There are just so many new start-up Internet companies who need people. But they will be looking for people with particular skill sets. The people who are going to do very well in this market are those who are keeping their skill sets up, who are embracing and learning the latest technologies," said Cutherbertson.

Competition for workers with such skills will drive wages up this year too, predict experts.

Woodsmall at USi expects wages for the most highly sought technology professionals to rise 5-7 percent this year as they did last year. That is a 2 to 3 percent bigger increase than the national average last year for all jobs.

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