Discouraged job seekers finally have some cause for optimism.
After losing roughly 100,000 jobs in two years, Maryland gained jobs in March for the first time in months. Increased job listings in areas such as sales and customer service signal a shift in companies' focus from cost cutting to growth. And some employer surveys show a brighter outlook in which more companies intend to hire than lay workers off.
"In '09, everyone was singing the blues," said Peter Francis, who works in the Timonium office of employee search firm MRI Global Search. "There's an increased sense of optimism that things will be better in 2010."
Andy Bauer, a regional economist in the Baltimore branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, said he expects the labor market to gradually improve as the economy continues to strengthen, with some sectors such as information technology and health care outpacing others.
"We're seeing some rays of sunshine in terms of the job market," said Daraius Irani, director of applied economics at the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University. "Consumers are showing some signs of being willing to spend money," and prompting companies to consider adding jobs to capitalize on that trend.
Still, unemployment woes are far from over. Experts disagree as to whether Maryland's gain of 35,800 jobs last month was merely a seasonal fluke or a sign of improvement. The state's jobless rate — at 7.7 percent — has reached its highest level in 27 years, and some experts still expect a long, hard-fought recovery.
And more job listings could prompt some of the jobless who had given up job hunting to return to the labor force, keeping the unemployment rate high.
But CareerBuilder.com, a major jobs website, found in a survey earlier this year that 23 percent of employers hired full-time permanent employees in the first quarter. The website, which is co-owned by The Baltimore Sun's parent, Tribune Co., also found that about one-fourth of employers plan to hire in the second quarter.
"Companies are focusing more on growth strategies," said Jennifer Grasz, a CareerBuilder spokeswoman. "You see companies focusing on sales, marketing and information technology. You're starting to see them ramping up those components to be ready for when the economy turns around."
Among the biggest job categories in CareerBuilder's listings for the first quarter, the largest increases were in customer service, sales, information technology, marketing and health care.
The Sun took a look at CareerBuilder's hottest job-listing categories to find out where positions are available and what applicants should know to land these jobs that experts say are still highly competitive.
"It doesn't matter whether it's marketing, sales or accounting, the competition is fierce for each position," said Kay Calivas, managing director of search firm Stephen James Associates in Baltimore.
CUSTOMER SERVICE: Up 26 percent
Companies such as Capital One, which recently bought Chevy Chase Bank, are hiring for customer service in Maryland. More than 80 jobs were posted by the company on CareerBuilder.com in the past month, ranging from part-time teller to branch manager to call center employees.
Sears, Advanced Auto Parts, Blockbuster and Macy's are some of the other major employers in the Baltimore area that are hiring. The majority of jobs pay $20,000 to $40,000 a year, and most are full-time positions, according to Indeed.com, which aggregates job listings from CareerBuilder.com, Monster.com and other employer and recruiter websites.
"The client-facing roles: sales, marketing and customer service tend to be the leading indicators" in a job recovery, said Ann Boland, of the Boland Group, a recruiting firm in Catonsville. "Companies are starting to fill positions they've had on hold."
Boland speculated that many companies put their hiring plans on hold last year as they weathered the tough economy and watched major issues, such as health care reform, play out. Now that some of those issues are behind employers, they're more comfortable hiring, she said.
SALES: Up 23 percent
Many companies that are poised to expand need to hire more sales staff — and that's one of the brightest spots in the Baltimore-area economy, according to industry observers.
Hundreds of sales jobs were available in CareerBuilder for Maryland this past week. The jobs ranged from real estate and wireless to food service and insurance. In some cases, job applicants may need to apply with a recruiting or outplacement service, which then helps place them in positions.
Service companies and retailers are adding sales staff to help bring in more revenue, according to Steven Braun, president of MRI Sales Consultants in Baltimore and head of the Maryland Recruiters Association.
Sales professionals are also in demand in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, Braun said. Companies seeking to market new drugs and medical devices, for instance, are looking to hire sales staff to help close deals. Depending on the type of job, a college degree might not be necessary.
"It's a cautious stepping up" in hiring, Braun said. "No doubt companies have learned to do more with less… I often hear of [sales] people being given larger territories, to cover more ground."
Companies with the most retail postings include Ann Taylor, Macy's, Petco, and Babies R Us, Boland said. "It's ironic that the first positions to get cut are sales," said Boland. "But they're also the first positions to get filled when [companies] are seeing a stronger economic climate."
HEALTH CARE: Up 11 percent
The health care industry — conventional wisdom goes — remains robust even during a recession because sick people still need doctors, nurses and hospitals. And it's true that hiring has remained steady throughout the downturn. In just the last three months, health care job listings have jumped 11 percent in Maryland, according to CareerBuilder.
But medical facilities have not been immune to the recession, with some slowing hiring as the recession has cost patients their insurance or forced them to put off procedures. Even as local hospitals have continued to hire, some say the competition for those jobs is fiercer than ever.
Saint Agnes Hospital in Baltimore, a 407-bed teaching hospital, is constantly recruiting across all job categories to handle normal turnover, with some 55 to 70 new hires each month, said James Bobbitt, vice president of human resources.
The hospital can always use "seasoned" nurses, Bobbitt said, but recent nursing school graduates face more competition. That's partly because part-timers have taken on full-time work and older workers have put off retirement this recession.
The University of Maryland Medical Center has openings ranging from nurses to respiratory therapists and medical lab technologists, said Chuck Schevitz, director of human resources.
"We are still hiring and do have vacancies, but because of the times, there is a lot more competition for those positions," Schevitz said.
He advices recent nursing grads to come armed with student nurse experience, and he said all applicants will need more than technical skills. "You have to form interpersonal relationships with co-workers as things are team-oriented," he said. And "the expectation is that you're going to not only be highly skilled and proficient at your profession, but provide customer service."
Bobbitt, at St. Agnes, reminds applicants they need to be able to apply online and should be sure to keep resumes updated with all relevant experience, including special certifications, licensing and special training. The hospital also looks for individuals who have done community or volunteer work.
Managers want clinically skilled employees but also "people who have a mission-mindedness about them."
INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY: Up 9 percent
The Baltimore area's technology sector has been a source of steady job opportunities. Software developers and programmers are in demand. And people with software and database expertise are needed in the health care field, as increasing regulations and the push for electronic records create new challenges.
Workers who can obtain government clearances also have been in demand throughout the recession, according to recruiters in the Baltimore area. Job opportunities can be found at any number of contractors in this region that regularly do work for the federal government, especially in the defense industry.
Lockheed Martin, for instance, has dozens of job openings — from software engineers to systems analysts —- in Maryland, despite recently laying off 37 people at a Middle River facility. Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, which does research and classified defense work with federal agencies, posted 66 positions in the past month on its website, for jobs ranging from electronics assembly technician to security officer.
Most government contracting companies seem to be growing, according to Joe Mechlinski, president of entreQuest of Baltimore, a management consulting and recruiting firm. He said one information technology company he works with just hired 30 people at offices in Aberdeen, Columbia and Northern Virginia after winning a large government contract.
"Companies are definitely out of the frightened-scared mode," Mechlinski said. "They're saying to us, 'We are hiring. Help us train them.'"
Jobs tied to the Internet, such as web developer, designer and content writer, are also increasingly available, according to Jessica Narlis, senior recruiter with The Boss Group in Baltimore. "Anything having to do with the interactive world is booming," she said.
MARKETING: Up 8 percent
Though marketing positions might have been cut during leaner times, many companies now are looking to these professionals to come up with new approaches to help jump start business.
"They're looking to pick up new clients, new business, new accounts, to help turn around the business," said Mark Millman, president of Millman Search Group, a national search firm based in Owings Mills.
At Stephen James Associates in Baltimore, which specializes in placing mid- to senior-level managers, executive Kay Calivas said she has seen growth in e-commerce and online marketing jobs. She said marketing directors at education-related companies and institutions also are in demand.
Blue Corona, a small Gaithersburg firm that specializes in analysis and online marketing for clients such as remodelers, plumbers and roofers who have been hammered by the downturn in the housing market, has seen growth during the recession as clients looked for ways to turn limited marketing dollars into new leads.
"My biggest problem is finding competent people to hire quick enough," said Ben Landers, Blue Corona president.
While it helps to have an in-demand special set of skills or experiences, applicants with a proven track record in marketing also will find themselves with an edge, Millman said. Employers "are not hiring inexperienced people. They can't afford to go with people who are questionable or who haven't proven themselves," he said.
But he cautions that even experienced applicants may have to lower their salary expectation in the current market and be "willing to take a step down, so to speak."
"There's a plethora of people available out of work, through no fault of their own," he said.