Even 'White Collar' Jobs Bounce Back

After years of being reengineered, downsized, and treated like the doormat of the national workplace, the American middle manager is back.

Companies across the country say they plan to hire middle managers and other professionals at the fastest rate in more than 15 years, according to a recent survey. And large companies have dramatically curtailed layoffs during the past year.

"This is record breaking, incredible stuff," says Alan Schonberg, president of Management Recruiters International Inc. (MRI), a nationwide headhunting firm based in Cleveland. "In our 16-year history we have never seen hiring with such intensity."

Most of the job positions in the "feeding frenzy of hiring" are new, with little bias about an applicant's age, Mr. Schonberg says.

The hiring binge poses one drawback. It is largely targeted at the country's 40 million managerial and professional workers, the best-paid and best-educated third of the work force. Thus the politically sensitive, and socially damaging, wage and skill gap still cuts across society.

"The opportunities for people who have a decent education are substantially greater than for those who do not," says Gary Polvere, president of Management Recruiters, a fast growing headhunting firm in Barrington, Ill.

Middle managers now turned the tables on upper management.

Companies that staged wholesale layoffs this decade have undercut the tradition of a lifetime job. Consequently, workers now network aggressively and prepare to career hop to new employers.

The looser bond between employer and employee makes it more difficult for companies to retain staff, especially with a robust economy and low unemployment, say labor force experts.

Inflation - the killer of business confidence - has become a non-event, and many businesses are hiring with the expectation the good times will continue, job- market experts say.

Although downsizing continues, it has run its course at most companies. Staff cuts through June fell 28 percent below the average of the same period during the prior four years, according to a recent survey by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago outplacement firm.

Among companies still downsizing, a growing percentage are hiring more employees than they are letting go, according to the American Management Association in New York.

Some 52 percent of executives plan rapid expansions in the ranks of middle-to-upper management and professional staffs by 1998, according to a nationwide survey of more than 4,800 executives by MRI. The hiring projections were strong nationwide, but especially in the mid-Atlantic and the West. Information technology is the most sought after specialty.

Another MRI survey shows that companies also plan to enlarge their sales and marketing staff at a faster clip than in any surveyed period since 1981. New England logged the highest growth in projected hiring; South Central states notched the lowest.

To a degree, many middle managers can thank themselves. They helped streamline corporate structure and redefine their jobs, the experts say.

Like their employers, they have adapted quickly to new office technology and rising global competition. These forces have compelled companies to reduce management levels and give mid-level executives more authority.

In turn, middle managers have given front-line workers more autonomy and begun acting more as advisers than bosses.

"The new hires are not picking up classic middle-management jobs, they are picking up restructured middle management jobs that emphasize other aspects of work and skill sets different from GM 20 years ago and IBM 10 years ago," says Eric Rolfe Greenberg, director of management studies at the American Management Association.

Many middle managers have also learned, sometimes the hard way, that the job market requires more knowledge and skills. They have to expand their expertise into at least two new areas, such as information technology, accounting, marketing, or finance.

"The outlook for the middle manager is very positive for those who have expanded skill sets, who have come to terms with the end of de facto lifetime employment, and who have successfully learned new people skills," Mr. Greenberg says.

Surprisingly, the hiring binge and low unemployment have not yet put significant pressure on wages. US workers, are less assertive about raises than in previous decades, Greenberg says.

The robust economy has turned the job search into a waltz for professionals like Bradley Cohen. The resident of Hawthorn Woods, Ill., told his former employer in March that he would leave by July. He mailed just 25 rsums, elicited several interviews, and received two offers.

After playing the two companies off one another, Mr. Cohen accepted a job with substantially higher pay and benefits. He hopped right on schedule to the new position, a job with Vision Group, an energy consultancy based in Jacksonville, Fla.

"Basically it's an extremely good time to network. And if you know how to do it, things work out extremely well," Cohen says.

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