Employers can afford to be picky Job seekers with best chances are skilled, experienced workers.

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

It's a buyer's market for employers, who have become much more selective in hiring. As many industries have cut positions because of the recession, too many job seekers are chasing too few jobs.

Recruiters and job placement specialists say area employers are scrutinizing applicants and are less willing to train new workers. Job seekers who fare best are experienced workers with technical or specialized skills. In some cases, companies are luring key employees from competitors that are on the ropes.

Some employment experts also say they have begun to see an upturn in some fields, and all agree that the strongest job market is the health industry. At the same time, the percentage of job openings in sales has gained.

"It's an employer's market," says John Stevens, senior vice president at the Towson office of Drake Beam Morin Inc., the nation's largest career consulting and outplacement firm, which is often hired by companies to counsel people being laid off.

"They can look for those who can hit the decks running," says Stevens. "Many are not even having to advertise or use recruiting agencies. They just go through all the resumes they've gotten and those who have contacted them through networking."

"The pool is so large . . . so many people out there looking, employers can be very choosy," says Debbie Conaway, co-director of the Career Focus program at Maryland New Directions. Conaway says her clientele is about half men, half women, generally in their 30s or older, well-educated and with a great deal of work experience.

"Some have been laid off," she says. "Some have seen the handwriting on the wall."

"The last four to five years it was an applicant's market," says Don Boswell, office manager for the Towson office of Snelling & Snelling. "Now there's a lot of people on the streets -- middle management -- that are having to take jobs at a lot less."

"Middle-management generalists are really being squeezed, the ones making $30,000 to $60,000 or $70,000 and sometimes a little more," Stevens agrees.

As an example, he cites middle managers in human relations. If they're generalists, they face a tough ride, he says.

But, he says, "If they bring with them a strong technical background such as compensation or benefits, there's a market for them."

Carl Wright, president of Don Richards Associates, a recruiting firm that specializes in financial services, says employers in some cases are seeking to add a new skill to their staffs.

L "Employers are targeting certain jobs to upgrade," he says.

"In finance general management, you can find the right person. You have an opportunity to recruit somebody you wouldn't have been able to attract six months ago."

What's more, Wright says, employers can entice coveted personnel worried about job security from their financially strapped rivals.

And employers are picking up these selected people at the going rate, he says. "I'm not seeing any great salary deals," he says.

Wright says he is beginning to believe that banking had hit the low point and is now moving to fill key jobs on a selective basis. Health care, he says, has remained strong, and residential real estate is just starting to come back, bringing with it an upswing in residential mortgage banking.

But commercial real estate, he says, is showing "absolutely no signs of life."

James H. Porter, president and owner of the Porter Group Inc., a Columbia firm that specializes in entry and midlevel positions, says he is finding companies are taking longer to make decisions on hiring.

Where employers had been taking two to three weeks, they now take four to six, he says.

Porter says the medical field has definitely picked up, with demand "red hot" for nurses to go into fields such as home-care equipment sales, but adds that management jobs in retail, finance and restaurants have "definitely died somewhat."

In retail, he says, he normally might have 100 jobs available. "Now 20 would be doing good," he says.

As the management jobs have dwindled, Porter says, the ratio of sales jobs has increased. A year ago, he says, sales jobs constituted about 60 percent of his listings; now they account for 80 percent.

"They're looking for experience in their own industry," he says. "If they're in office furniture, they're looking for people who know a brand; they want someone who knows Steelcase," a major manufacturer.

And, while companies are looking for experienced sales people, "they definitely haven't increased their pay," Porter says. "They're paying about the same as last year."

Steve Braun, owner of the Baltimore franchise of Sales Consultants, says he hasn't seen a dip in hiring; in fact, the first quarter was his best ever. Positions he fills generally pay from $40,000 to $80,000 in base sales plus commission.

"If there's been any change, it's that companies are being more selective," he says. "The interview process is getting tougher and tougher." Companies, he says, want people who are already in their field, want to stay in that field, know their market and can step in and get going.

"Companies are more focused. That's definitely an effect of the recession," he says.

Demand for sales representatives is strong, he says, in high-tech industries such as telecommunications and data processing, where employers are seeking expertise. Demand also remains high in the food and beverage fields and medical products, he says, while retail is "disastrous."

Charles Minchik, owner of the Baltimore-area franchise of Healthcare Recruiters, says hiring is picking up again after a slump that lasted from September to March -- a period he notes coincided with the Kuwaiti crisis and war with Iraq.

'We have definitely seen a shift back to hiring," he says. About 70 percent of the slots Healthcare deals with are with manufacturing companies in the health industry, he says, with the other 30 percent in hospital administration.

Industry consolidation -- large companies buying smaller ones to gain market share -- that preceded the recession already had killed the golden goose that saw some medical sales people making as much as several hundred thousand dollars a year, Minchik says. About $80,000 is more typical now.

"A lot of experienced medical sales people are walking the street because of consolidation," he says. "From a recruiter's viewpoint, we are candidate-heavy."

In medical sales, companies look for people with experience in dealing with specific hospital departments, such as critical care, staff development and operating or emergency rooms, he says.

Meanwhile, Minchik says, hospital administration jobs have become much more performance-oriented because hospitals have to make money. One result of that has been a great expansion in the need for marketing services.

But the endless demand, he says, is for technical personnel: nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists, radiology technicians.

They get snapped up, he says.

Job-hunting strategies

Here are some tips from area recruiting and career

specialists:

* Realistically evaluate your strengths, weaknesses and interests. Set a goal and develop your job-search strategy around it.

Use networking techniques to learn about jobs that aren't advertised or filled by recruiters. Call business and personal associates, follow up, check back. Most of all, get a few more names.

* Keep your resume short and to the point. Two pages maximum.

Try to sell an employer on yourself and your particular skills and help the company define the job you could fill. It's much easier to help create a job than to go after one for which the specs are chiseled in stone.

* Consider going into business yourself as a consultant.

Consider taking a temporary position. It can lead to a permanent job, and in the meantime, it helps pay the bills.

For sales jobs, emphasize your experience in the marketplace. If you're entry-level and have an above-average college record, aim for Fortune 500 companies; they're more willing to train. If you're an average Joe, look at the business products field.

Be flexible, especially if you're entry-level. Take less pay for the sake of gaining experience.

Recognize that job hunting is an emotional yo-yo. Don't let it get you down.

Advice: Be flexible, lower goals

Employment specialists have a few words of advice for new graduates: Be flexible.

James H. Porter, president and owner of the Porter Group Inc., a Columbia firm that specializes in entry- and midlevel positions, advises entry-level job seekers to lower expectations and salary goals. Those with average college records should expect to make around $18,000.

"We're trying to tell them, 'Hey, get out there and start getting some experience' and when the economy starts to come back, maybe they'll get some more money," he says.

Steve Braun, owner of the Baltimore franchise of Sales Consultants, advises new grads with average college records to focus on office products, which he calls a breeding ground for sales people.

Undergraduates with a better than 3.0 grade average and who have well-rounded backgrounds should apply to Fortune 500 companies, which are extremely selective, Braun says.

Charles Minchik, owner of the Baltimore-area franchise of Healthcare Recruiters, warns that new grads will find difficulty breaking into medical sales, often perceived as high paying and recession-proof.

"We're in such a niche market that only the Fortune 50 companies will hire entry-level people," he says. "The Johnson & Johnsons, the Baxters, the Abbotts -- they don't run a body shop. They're going to take the cream of the crop."

Those who don't get entry-level jobs with firms like those should try to get two-plus years with a good national company -- not the local dealer or distributor, he emphasizes -- in consumer or office products, like Xerox or Pitney Bowes.

A successful track record there can be the springboard into the medical field, he says, adding that while the medical field is continually growing, the rate of growth has slowed down.

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