Area showing growth as a hub for high-tech

Semiannual job fair at Fort Meade points to gathering boom


By the end of yesterday's job fair at Fort Meade, the recruiting table for NMR Consulting had a stack of about 50 resumes from prospective information technology job candidates.

Not bad for a few hours, but that's indicative of how the Baltimore-Washington area has become a hub for technology jobs, said Frank Ringley, the Annapolis-based company's director of intelligence and security programs.

"It's a very good place to find employees," he said. "If you look around the corridor ... there are so many defense contractors here, it just draws [information technology] people."

That's good news for employers looking to hire intelligence specialists, linguists, technicians who can set up secure cable networks and other workers fueling Maryland's growing stature in defense technology.

And the number of jobs is expected to mushroom -- the super-secret National Security Agency is aiming to hire 7,500 workers by 2009; Fort Meade and Aberdeen Proving Ground together are expected to gain 11,400 government jobs through the Pentagon's base realignment and closure process. State officials estimate that the total job gain, from federal operations and private contractors drawn to the area, could reach 60,000.

Mahlon R. Straszheim, an economics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, said the region continues to draw an "incredibly educated work force" that is adding to growth in the information and professional business sectors.

"The jobs are here, the quality of life is good here, education systems are good here in the state, all those things are combined to attract the work force," he said. "We're constantly attracting workers."

Missie Knight, a recruiting manager for the Lanham-based information technology company QSS Group Inc., is expecting the base realignment and closure process, known as BRAC, to create a richer pool of applicants with security clearances, as well as spouses looking for jobs.

"Right now we think that it might help us," said Knight, whose company provides services for such agencies as the NSA, CIA and NASA.

The area has been a strong technology center for about 20 years and has benefited in the past decade from low interest rates and growing federal procurement, said Charles W. McMillion, president and chief economist of MBG Information Services, a Washington-based business information, analysis and forecasting firm.

"The entire metropolitan Washington-Baltimore area ... is a booming area for talent in general, and new technology talent in particular," McMillion said. "The state-of-the-art work that's in this region has been a locomotive for the economy and has been a magnet for talent around the country and around the world."

This sector is so imbedded in the local economy that yesterday's job fair -- whose attendees included those with Department of Defense security clearance and community college students -- has become a routine affair, a semiannual event that still managed to attract more than 1,500 people and 84 employers.

Such events might become more common as the Baltimore region girds for a flood of new military jobs.

When the base realignment does happen, Russ Dawson, senior recruiter for Keane Federal Systems Inc., said that he's hoping it will be a "big boom" for his McLean, Va.-based company.

"But we're swimming in a big pool," said Dawson, who was at the job fair looking for prospective employees with security clearances. "There are ... other companies here that do what we do, and there are hundreds of smaller companies trying to get their fingers in the federal pie. It's a very competitive market."

Job applicants could drop off their resumes for more than 4,000 open positions with employers that included Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Six Flags America, the FBI and Lockheed Martin.

Command Sgt. Maj. Jeff Couch, stationed at Fort Meade, was in line to talk to recruiters at Lockheed Martin because, he said, he is ready for a career change after 23 years in the military.

"I enjoyed every second in the Army, but there comes a time when you have to close one chapter and open another," said Couch, 46, who is looking for work in the intelligence field.

He likely won't have to look far because intelligence and other information-based businesses continue to grow, said Straszheim.

"The traditional manufacturing jobs are fading away, and the manufacturing jobs that are remaining are in the high-tech areas, computer-related areas," Straszheim said. "Traditionally, Maryland has never been a manufacturer or agricultural state, it's basically just increased its share" of high-technology jobs.

McMillion said the region's major drawback is its high cost of living, saying that unless prospective employees are selling a house in other high-priced markets, such as San Francisco or New York, they're likely to struggle to find housing.

"I bet you every employer is worried about being able to pay talent enough to get them to come and stay here because the cost of living is high," he said.

Straszheim acknowledged that while housing is expensive, it's affordable, explaining that a number of dual-income families are working to pay for what he says is the area's high quality of life.

"The Washington metropolitan area has had the fastest rate of job growth of any city," he said. "Data show that more and more couples are picking metropolitan areas to live in, and [the Washington area] is about the best."

Sun reporter Melissa Harris contributed to this article.

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