Amid layoff news, many companies are still hiring

Some positions require advanced degrees, but a variety of skill levels are in demand.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Nathan Mishkin was recently hired by Scottrade in Boston.
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    Working: Above, Gregg Steiner (c.) and Alan Finkel (r.) of Green Life Guru talk with a homeowner in Los Angeles about energy efficiency. The company is trying to recruit more workers.
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From his vantage point, David Winslow does not see a recession or rising unemployment rate. Instead, the founder of a software company in Burlington, Vt., sees a hiring opportunity.

In Farmington Hills, Mich., the gloomy news about more home foreclosures means that GreenPath Debt Solutions is increasing the number of people it hires to counsel consumers.

And, even though some companies are reducing their payrolls, that's not the case for Uncle Sam. One government website lists 49,000 federal job openings alone.

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Yes, even while news of rising unemployment and looming recession is on Page 1, other organizations are still hiring. Some are in industries that benefit from a downturn: They help companies save money or find new business opportunities. Some companies are in businesses that are growing regardless of the general economy.

"There are lots of places in the economy where the cylinders are still firing," says John Challenger of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm in Chicago. "Not Wall Street, not housing, and not automotive, but there are many areas that are doing well, are recession-proof or safer havens in a storm for job security," says Mr. Challenger, an expert on employment.

The monthly numbers, which can be grim on a headline basis, don't always tell the full story. For example, last Friday, the Labor Department reported that in March the economy lost 80,000 jobs and the unemployment rate rose to 5.1 percent. But those numbers mean that roughly some 2.1 million new jobs were created, even though 2.2 million jobs were lost.

"Suffice it to say there is a lot of churn in the labor market, and what we see in the net change is a tremendous understatement of what is going on below the surface," says Richard DeKaser, Washington-based chief economist at National City Corp.

Even in the last recession, in 2001, the economy lost roughly 26.1 million jobs but also added 23.2 million jobs, Mr. DeKaser notes.

Some of that churn – in the positive sense – can be seen at Mr. Winslow's software company, Epik One. "I was just watching CNN talk about the 80,000 jobs that were lost in the economy," says Winslow, whose company analyzes the effectiveness of advertising spending on the Internet. "We don't think cutting back is a good idea. We think this is a great time to hit the growth accelerator."

Epik expects to grow from 20 employees at the beginning of the year to 40 by year's end.

Winslow's company is far from unique. Around the nation, a wide range of companies are still hiring. Some of the new jobs are even in areas that are shrinking, such as financial services. Some positions require advanced degrees, but a variety of skill levels are in demand.

High-tech companies, including Epik, are especially looking for workers. In Needham, Mass., HiWired Inc. is planning to add 50 to 100 new employees to its staff, which provides US-based technical support for consumers. The company is gearing up partly because during downturns, consumers tend to keep their computers longer. "What happens is the computer slows down, and people want to know if there is anything they can do to make it run like new again," says Singu Srinivas, company president.

VistaPrint, an online provider of graphic services for small businesses and consumers, views the downturn as an opportunity. "We are looking at this as a case of talent on sale. There are a lot of good people out there," says Austin Cooke, vice president of global recruiting for the Lexington, Mass., firm, which is planning a "significant" increase in its head count.

"We are hiring in all our offices, and we have a 26-person recruiting office that is very busy right now," he says.

Ironically, during a downturn, it can be harder to get good people to leave their jobs, says Olivier Chaine, CEO of magnify 360, a high-tech company in Los Angeles. "Those people who are happy with their paycheck are not quite as willing to jump ship."

Mr. Chaine just filled two positions and has six more openings, whose salaries range from $30,000 to $250,000.

Green-tech businesses are also adding to their payrolls. Take Rick Ector, president of TVIG, which is based in Chattanooga, Tenn., and is involved in the wind industry. Mr. Ector bemoans the shortages of people with the expertise he needs. "We are doing a big project in Big Spring, Texas, and it's hard to find engineers and professionals who want to take on that construction lifestyle," he says. In the past few months, he has hired 20 people, but he still needs more.

In Los Angeles, Green Life Guru is busy recruiting people who can go into homes and businesses to analyze energy usage and water and air quality.

Founder Gregg Steiner says he advertises on craigslist and goes to local schools such as University of Southern California and University of California, Los Angeles. "We're trying to get young people who are fresh out of college and passionate about the environment," he says.

Even some traditional businesses are expanding. Con-way Truckload in Joplin, Mo., is hoping to add 300 drivers this year, including 100 "teams," drivers who put in longer hours on the road. The company's expansion is partly the result of a merger, but it's also due to high turnover, despite relatively high wages of up to $150,000 for each team.

The company is hoping the downturn in construction will send workers its way. "We have a contest every quarter for the driver who recruits the most new employees," says Bruce Stockton, vice president of maintenance and asset management. "Our best recruiters are our current drivers."

Despite massive layoffs on Wall Street, some parts of the financial sector are continuing to add to their head count. Scottrade, based in St. Louis, has 200 openings, says Jane Wulf, chief administrative officer. "We have to get more proactive than [in] the past," she says. "There is a lot of competition in St. Louis."

Sixty of the jobs are technology positions, but the firm is also hiring branch managers, brokers, and interns. One new hire is Nathan Mishkin in Boston, who interned for the company previously. "I see myself in the future working as a stock broker with Scottrade," says Mr. Mishkin, who landed the job three weeks after applying.

Some parts of the insurance industry are also expanding – such as Combined Insurance Co., which is based in Chicago and deals with supplemental life and health policies.

The company would like to hire up to 4,000 people this year, mostly commission-based agents who receive benefits. "It's a great opportunity for someone who does not like being in a structured organization but does well in the field," says Larry Kwalwaser, director of staffing and employee development.

GreenPath Debt Solutions, meanwhile, is searching as fast as it can for qualified applicants who have high credit scores themselves. In two weeks, it will begin training 20 applicants and then another 20 in May. "After that, we will bring in 20 every six to eight weeks," says Bill Lodge, director of human resources.

In the past year, one of the strongest industries has been the hospitality business. And some parts of it continue to grow, including Gaylord Hotels, which is based in Nashville, Tenn., and recently opened a $900 million resort at National Harbor, Md., just outside Washington.

To staff the hotel, Gaylord has hired 1,800 employees and still has positions open, says Jesse Stewart, vice president of human resources. "Right now, our major need is culinary. We're looking for cooks and we also need people in housekeeping," he says.

When the hotel opened, it had 16,000 applicants. Covering the event for a local business newspaper was Liza Gutierrez. She became so wrapped up in the hiring process, including a fashion show for new employees, that she applied to the company and started working there two weeks ago. "My priority is a great work environment," she says.

Even Uncle Sam is embarking on a hiring binge, according to Dennis Damp, author of "The Book of U.S. Government Jobs." Almost half of the 2.7 million federal employees are eligible for retirement or early retirement. "It's the leading edge of the baby-boomer exodus," he explains. "To attract new workers, some agencies are offering cash bonuses of $5,000 or more," Mr. Damp says. The average wage with benefits: $106,871. "It's a hidden job market," he adds.

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