War is a boon for Md. jobs

December 05, 2004|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

Survey the skies over Iraq and you will find an armada of U.S. military jets carrying sensitive antennas and communications equipment built and tested in a low-profile industrial park in Baltimore's Park Heights.

Employment at Nurad Technologies Inc., housed in what was once a London Fog coat factory, has nearly doubled to 135 in the three years since the Bush administration launched a huge military buildup and went to war. Nurad and the rest of Maryland's military contractors have been on a hiring spree not seen since the Cold War.

As Nurad scrambled to recruit the engineers it needed to keep up with its swelling order book, it encountered a job market crowded with rivals offering signing bonuses and other enticements to lure workers with critical skills. Nurad had to resort to hiring recent college graduates for positions it had reserved for experienced mid-career professionals.

Nurad's experience is being echoed at dozens of defense companies statewide as the industry struggles to fill thousands of openings for engineers, scientists, computer experts and manufacturing workers.

Stressed personnel managers are resorting to unconventional recruitment and casting a wider net - offering current employees everything from cash to big-screen televisions to recruit their friends from other companies.

Salaries for sought-after skills are being pushed up - sometimes to six figures - and young graduates are fielding multiple offers. In the meantime, companies, leery of losing existing employees, are providing perks ranging from in-house massage to on-site dry cleaning.

"The defense sector is in the midst of the biggest surge in employment in a generation, and Maryland is a bigger beneficiary of that surge than almost any other state," said Loren B. Thompson, a defense industry analyst with the Lexington Institute, a military think tank in Arlington, Va.

Northrop Grumman Corp., which has more than 11,000 employees in Maryland and accounts for almost 8 percent of the state's manufacturing employment, is hiring 700 to 800 employees for its Baltimore-area operations this year and expects to add more over the next few years, company officials said.

Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp., which boosted its Maryland payroll by 3,000 last year to more than 8,000 through new hires, acquisitions and consolidations, expects to add 2,500 this year - more than half of them new hires in the Washington area and Maryland.

AAI Corp., whose Shadow reconnaissance drone is widely deployed in Iraq, is looking to fill at least 100 positions. Waltham, Mass.-based Raytheon Co.'s Intelligence and Information Systems division, which serves an alphabet soup of intelligence agencies, has added 600 to its payroll this year in offices scattered across Maryland, Virginia and State College, Pa.

And at any time during the past 16 months, San Diego-based research and engineering firm Science Applications International Corp. has had openings for more than 1,000 in the Washington area, with a substantial number of them in Maryland.

"I entered this industry in about 1980 when Reagan was first elected, and the last few years feel very much like then," said Andy Humen, Nurad's director of advanced technology. "The business across the board is doing very well."

Hiring and overtime

When it was forced to hire recent college graduates, Nurad set up a rigorous training program to bring them up to speed. "We've been growing our own guys," said Humen.

Even as it built up its work force, the company had to require overtime to keep up with demand for its products, which are found on virtually every U.S. war jet.

Among them are "radomes" - cone-shaped covers that protect antennas and other communications equipment. The radomes become scratched and gouged as the planes encounter sand and other debris in Iraq's harsh desert.

Nurad expects continued growth will mean more hiring, and that could mean a tough time filling slots.

Recruiters throw themselves at capable engineers and computer programmers. Competition is especially fierce for those with essential security clearances, which can take from three months to almost two years to process.

Applications have swelled to 325,000, according to Caryl Clubb, a spokeswoman at the Defense Security Service, the wing of the Defense Department that issues them. It is hiring hundreds more investigators to speed the process.

That means workers scooped up while awaiting clearances have to busy themselves on nonclassified work. At the same time, companies are looking over their shoulders for rivals out to poach employees with the coveted clearances.

"If they have clearances, they're working, and everybody is stealing from one to get the other," said Robert Esti, who owns ClearedConnections.com, a secure Web site that matches defense contractors with job seekers who have clearances.

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