Hot Spots in a Cold Job Market

Some laid-off workers are finding new jobs--fast

Bill Connors was worried sick when he lost his job in late September overseeing the inspection of cell-tower parts. Where would a 54-year-old career telecom executive find a job in an economy that was souring? After 15 résumés went unanswered in the first four weeks of his job search, Connors turned to online job board A day later he found a new job with better pay. Now he manages quality control at Boston's Solectria Corp., which makes parts for electric vehicles. "In this job market, you have to be flexible. Look outside your field if you're going to find work," he says.

Connors isn't the only laid-off worker to find himself rehired sooner than expected. While the U.S. recession has sent unemployment up sharply in almost every region and industry, plenty of workers seem to be snatching new jobs without much trouble. The reason: Even as many companies have begun hiring freezes, lots of enclaves remain in which companies are now happily cherry-picking among the newly unemployed. "There are a surprising number of pockets of strength in this recession," says Mark Vitner, an economist at Charlotte (N.C.)-based bank Wachovia Corp. (WB )

Of course, layoffs remain the rule. The U.S. shed 415,000 jobs in October, the biggest single monthly job loss in 20 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. After hitting an all-time low in October, 2000, of 3.9%, unemployment has spiked up to 5.4% in just a year. Altogether, 1 million fewer jobs exist in the U.S. today than last October. The boom industries of the late 1990s, such as telecom, computers, and consulting, have been hit especially hard. "It's the worst I've ever seen for out-of-work consultants," says Adam P. Kohn, a managing director at headhunter Christian & Timbers.

On average, that means the time it now takes to snare a new job--7.4 weeks, the BLS says--is growing. While far less than the 10 weeks it took in the mid-'90s, that's a big rise from the 5.3 weeks required in September, 2000.

Yet the weakness is far from universal. Nationally, state education jobs increased 140,000 between October, 2000, and October, 2001. Although Texas employment has fallen overall, the booming oil sector lifted hiring in Houston by 2.2% in September. In still-hot industries like bioscience, workers continue to flit among jobs. "I've been impressed with the number of positions available in the pharmaceutical industry," says Dr. Vanaja V. Ragavan, who just jumped from Aventis to Novartis to head up women's health research.

Even in hard-hit industries, some growth remains. While tech hiring is down overall, Microsoft Corp. (MSFT ) plans as many as 5,000 hires this fiscal year to design, test, or sell software. And though tens of thousands have lost their jobs on Wall Street, many banks and investment houses continue to hire. Despite a spate of recent layoffs, both FleetBoston Financial (FBF ) and Fidelity Investments have recently been in the market again. They've posted 850 jobs online for everything from secretaries to accountants. "Investment bankers have been hit hard, but [many others in] the industry are doing fine," says Bill Coleman, vice-president for compensation at online job service Inc.

In fact, some industries aren't hurting as badly as it might seem. Depressed as the financial and telecom sectors are, jobs in each grew 1% and 1.4%, respectively, between October of this year and last. Even the troubled retail sector has seen gains. Not only have enough new jobs been created to make up for all the layoffs in each sector, additional jobs have been created.

BALANCING OUT. Still, a looser labor market means that after years in which job seekers held the upper hand, the balance of power has swung back to employers. Now they can pick and choose among the many job seekers, snatching up veterans like John Athanason. The 34-year-old promotions manager was laid off from Silver Springs, an Ocala (Fla.) nature park, days after the attack on the World Trade Center. With extensive expertise, he quickly drummed up several job offers.

But even a great résumé isn't a guarantee these days. "Companies are hiring fewer people and are being more picky," says Patrick Sylvester, a managing director at executive search firm Banister International Inc. For now, however, folks that don't make the cut in one industry may find their luck better--and faster--in others.

By Charles Haddad in Atlanta, with bureau reports

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