Layoffs, cuts ... and more hiring

Even as pink slips make headlines, jobs go begging in many sectors of the economy - even lots of dotcoms.

Layoffs. Retirements. Attrition. It seems like that's all you hear about on the job front these days.

But if you talk to Ed Coringrato of CENiX Inc. in Allentown, Pa., he's still looking for optical engineers.

Or, if you're not worried by heights and high voltage, call Chris Wolmack of Southern Co. He's hiring linemen, who generally make $47,000 to $50,000 a year, to keep the electricity flowing in Atlanta.

And Cindy Atwood, owner of the Hotel Pemaquid in Maine, would love to lure someone to clean rooms, after having to tuck in the sheets herself this past weekend.

In fact, it's not all gloom and doom out there. Scores of industries are hiring: mining firms, mortgage bankers, health services, oil companies, insurance providers, and electric utilities, just to name a few.

One indication that jobs are available: The newly unemployed are taking only 2.07 months on average to find another job.

"The unemployment rate would not be at 4.5 percent if that were not happening," says John Challenger of Chicago outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas, which tracks firing and hiring patterns.

The employment picture reflects a diverse economy in which, even as manufacturing has faltered, industries like coal and oil are boosting output, and other industries like housing see sales stimulated by falling interest rates.

This is not to gloss over the rising tide of layoffs. Last week, the government reported that initial and continuing claims for unemployment rose in mid-August. And in two weeks, when the government reports the jobless rate for August, it will probably tick up again.

"We expect it to peak at about 5.3 percent next spring," says economist David Wyss of Standard & Poor's/DRI in New York.

A significant portion of the layoffs are concentrated in two areas: manufacturing and temporary services.

These two categories lost 1.2 million jobs in the past year.

Temp-job activity is expected to be near historic lows for the final quarter of the year, according to a survey released today by Manpower, a Milwaukee-based temp agency. The malaise has spread to services, it says.

"A lot of companies hired temps so they could avoid laying off full-time workers," explains economist Mr. Wyss.

Still, even as manufacturing and temp services have shed jobs, there has been a gain of 2 million new jobs in the US over the past year. This is about the same as last year, but the mix has changed. Companies are hiring more managerial and professional workers.

That's the case at American Electric Power (AEP), a utility based in Columbus, Ohio. David Hagelin, a spokesman, estimates the company will be hiring 400 workers for its unregulated businesses such as trading sulfur-dioxide emissions. "These are jobs that require an economics or finance background - and possibly people with MBAs," he says.

Many websites want workers

Among dotcoms, for all their woes, demand continues strong for technical employees. A year ago, there were about 1 million unfilled jobs. Now, computer experts estimate this is down to about 400,000 to 500,000 jobs looking for workers.

"The pace has slowed down, but it's still a good place to be employment-wise," says Don McLaurin, head of the National Association of Computer Consultant Businesses in Alexandria, Va.

He says the industry's sales are growing about 10 percent this year - down significantly from the 30-percent rate of the past decade. Hourly wage rates are down perhaps 6 percent from last year.

Only a year ago, Wes Neithardt was working in Silicon Valley for a dotcom start-up. The company had financing trouble, so he moved to southern California, where he became an independent consultant.

Six months ago he returned to a company he used to work for: Countrywide Home Loans, one of the nation's largest mortgage providers. "It's harder to get a job now, but not incredibly difficult," says Mr. Neithardt, who lives in Agoura Hills, Calif.

In fact, Neithardt's new employer, Countrywide, is currently looking for salespeople, mortgage processors, and underwriters. It is launching a new bank, Treasury Bank, hiring for a facility in Plano, Texas, and has even added a toll-free number (888-470-JOBS).

"We need a lot of people. We're trying for as many as we can get," says Leora Goren, managing director of human resources at the Calabasas, Calif., company.

For some companies, hiring is driven by demographics. That's the case at Southern Co., one of the largest energy providers.

Forty percent of the company's employees are in their late 40s or older.

"We need to replace these folks in an orderly fashion," says Chris Wolmack, senior vice president for human resources at the Atlanta-based company.

To try to find workers, the company has formed "partnerships" with various colleges and universities where it recruits. Especially sought: people who want to become linemen. "They are very difficult to find, and it takes years to become one," Mr. Wolmack says.

Who can make a machine, or a bed?

In fact, for workers with certain skills, finding a job is not that difficult.

That's the case for Jeff Abler who joined CENiX, a company involved in optical communications, earlier this month. With a background in building automation equipment, the Tucson, Ariz., resident heard of the in Allentown, Pa., firm on his first day looking for work. He spent some time checking in with other companies, but "a lot had hiring freezes," he recalls. So, he ended up moving his wife and three children to Pennsylvania.

But it's not just the engineers who are being recruited. In Maine, the Hotel Pemaquid ended up bringing over two university students from Russia to make up rooms for the summer. Now, the students have returned to school, and for the next month, Ms. Atwood, the owner, will be making up beds and cleaning bathrooms. "If we could find people, we'd hire them," she says.

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