America's Hot Job Markets

Companies in 'edge cities' outside major urban centers put up 'Help Wanted' signs

RISA GUBER has no takers for jobs paying $20,000 to $55,000 a year.

Even after an aggressive advertising campaign, the human-resources director for Reznick, Fedder, and Silverman, a Bethesda-based accounting firm, complains that she has ''plenty of positions open.''

What is vexing for Ms. Guber is very promising for thousands humbled by the search for a job: In many parts of the country, the job market is jumping.

Workers are in such short supply in Kenosha, Wis., for example, that Olds Product Company recently enlisted the help of clergy to find suitable employees for its new mustard factory. Participating churches have been promised $100 for every match.

In Austin, Texas, Advanced Micro Devices has hired 800 workers and is looking to fill 500 more positions in a new $1.3 billion computer chip factory.

''It's a real problem,'' says Jim Everett of AMD. Like other manufacturers, AMD needs engineers, equipment operators, technicians, semiconductor designers, and office staff.

North Carolina's technology-rich Research Triangle has been such an exemplary jobs machine, French officials will soon visit there for some lessons on how to combat France's troubling 12 percent jobless rate.

In Arizona, the increased flight of ''snow birds'' - retirees settling in warm climates - has dramatically boosted that state's demand for all kinds of service employees.

Labor experts cite a variety of reasons for these hot job markets:

* The growing trend of so-called ''edge cities'' - areas of robust economic growth within 30 miles of major metropolitan centers where businesses find cheaper real estate, a more educated labor force, and a lower tax base than the nearby city provides. The Maryland suburb of Bethesda, for example, is a striking contrast to next-door Washington, D.C., where high rents and poor city services are sending employers to more business-friendly locations.

* Regions of the country, the South and the Midwest in particular, are alluring to businesses looking for wide open space, a ready labor force, and tax incentives.

* Marked increases in skilled, high-wage jobs. Contrary to all the talk about the low-paying service jobs created in recent years, the hottest part of the job market is driven by the need for computer wonks, managers, and other professionals, not hamburger flippers.

All this is good news for the hundreds of thousands of white-collar workers who were laid off during the recession years and those who are still prey to continuing corporate downsizing and government budget cuts.

In the past year, data processing, health services, restaurants, and electronics exporters have made up the bulk of the hiring, says Jack Bregger, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) assistant commissioner for employment analysis.

Experts credit business's bottom line for the job dynamism.

In the South, US and foreign auto manufacturers are capitalizing on relatively cheap, largely non-unionized labor, affordable plant space, and generous tax holidays offered by state and local municipalities.

There is BMW in South Carolina, Nissan and Saturn in Tennessee, Toyota in Kentucky, Ford and General Motors in Georgia, and Mercedes (which will set up shop soon) in Alabama. Numerous satellite industries have popped up in and around these areas, including auto parts, tools, and textile makers.

Janet Rankin, BLS's regional commissioner for the South, disputes the claim that quantity, not quality, is the defining characteristic of new southern job growth. ''These jobs are highly skilled and while they don't pay Detroit salaries - there's lower unionization here - they're high-paying jobs,'' especially given the south's lower cost of living, Ms. Rankin says.

Other cities are also robust job generators - Tampa/St. Petersburg; Orlando, Fla.; Charlotte, Raleigh/Durham, N.C.; and Nashville, among them. Preparation for the upcoming 1996 Olympics has meant even more job growth in Atlanta, Savannah, Ga., and the Tennessee mountains where the events are to take place.

Rankin's counterpart in the southwest, Robert Gaddie, boasts that ''compared to California and New England, the sun belt is booming.'' Texas, chock full of office space at rock-bottom prices, has drawn some of the nation's fastest-growing firms. ''Austin's high-tech sector has been taking business away from Silicon Valley,'' he says.

This year, the semiconductor industry is spending $10.3 billion in new plants and American technology firms are having difficulty filling thousands of positions across the country.

In Portland, Ore., Intel, LSI Logic, and Fujitsu will need to hire nearly 7,000 new workers over the next five years. ''Wherever they're building a new plant, there's a shortage of skilled workers,'' says Kim Butler, a consultant who helps high-tech companies find workers.

There are even glimmers of hope in the dimmest of economies. Take California, hard hit by military- base closings, a defense-industry downturn, and the exodus of firms fleeing costly state regulations. Four years after recession peaked in the US, the local economy is still limping along, saddled with a 7.7 percent unemployment rate.

But just outside San Francisco, in Walnut Creek, a jobs rush is going full blast. Another so-called ''edge city,'' Walnut Creek is a magnet for growth, says Sam Hirabayashi, BLS commissioner for the western states. ''A lot of banking firms from the city moved their data processing there, where commercial space is cheaper and public transportation makes an easier commute for workers.''

While some employers lament the difficulty in finding workers, you won't hear Tom Bennett of the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce complain. ''The growth in the private-sector employment is offsetting the loss in federal jobs that have occurred because of our [Montgomery] county's heavy job dependence on the federal government.'' That's clearly happening in neighboring Rockville, Md., which also ranks in the country's top 10 edge cities. ''The big job growth is in the small and mid-sized firms - many of them start-ups,'' says Doug Horne, chief of economic development for the city.

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