When Karen Bassett took a job as a computer systems analyst with the high-tech consulting firm Booz, Allen & Hamilton in Bethesda, the friend who referred her got a $1,500 check -- a bounty the company must routinely pay to find the right technical people.
But while jobs go begging at Booz Allen, those mid-management generalists shed from big corporations are the ones who must do the begging if they're to find work.
"Companies that used to get 50 or 60 responses to a job ad for a manager now get 350. They don't even send a card or letter acknowledging your resume anymore. And interviews are becoming harder and harder to get," laments one Baltimore manager, unemployed since last month from his job with a major corporation.
As U.S. corporations go through the drastic process of restructuring, there's good news for some categories of workers -- especially those with hybrid technical backgrounds such as Karen Bassett, educated in both engineering and technical management.
At the same time, there's bad news for vast numbers of one-size-fits-all managers who worked for big corporations in the 1980s.
"What we have is a giant disconnect in America between what the workplace needs and what many American workers can offer," says Dan Lacey, editor of the newsletter Workplace Trends.
The U.S. unemployment rate may have hit a five-year high at 7.1 percent last month, but specialists say there remain glaring shortages in many parts of the work force.
There are many openings for the right specialists in computer, engineering and scientific fields. Those with nuts-and-bolts skills useful to small businesses are in demand. And those with the right backgrounds in health care and medicine are also pursued by recruiters.
"One of the only things there isn't a shortage of are your off-the-rack middle managers -- the ones who worked at places like IBM, GM, Xerox, Kodak and DuPont. All those big, old companies that we admire had hordes of these people inside them. No one needs them anymore," says Mr. Lacey, author of the book "The Paycheck Disruption." He estimates that at least 200,000 such middle managers lost their jobs in 1991 alone.
"I don't think corporate America's productivity is there to support all the mid-level managers who worked for the big companies before the shake-out," says Charles White, president of Success Management, a Baltimore-based career counseling and outplacement company.
Vincent Zirpoli, president of Mega Marketing, a Timonium-based management consulting firm, says "part of the whole philosophy of the country now is to delegate down. And you can delegate down a lot easier if you have fewer layers."
Workplace specialists say it's a popular but mistaken belief that white-collar jobs in general are in jeopardy as the country makes its way through the current recession. Actually, many segments of the white-collar workplace are generating large numbers of new jobs, they say.
"We're hiring like mad," says Marie Lerch, a Booz Allen spokeswoman. The Bethesda-based firm, which specializes in management and technology consulting, currently has posted more than 100 "Priority One" openings for employees to perform work already sold to clients.
Any Booz Allen employee who provides the name of someone ultimately hired for such a job can receive a cash reward of up to $1,500, she says.
"Selection of the right people is still very, very important to the business," says Frank Dietz, one of a half dozen recruiters employed by Booz Allen. Although the recession has helped ease the strain, he says the company still has difficulty finding the right people for positions in computer sciences -- including such niches as artificial intelligence and voice messaging system design.
"I think people with a strong technical background and a strong management background are going to go far in this economy," says Ms. Bassett, 28, who was working for Fairchild Defense Co. in Germantown until she took Booz Allen's job offer last October.
Job specialists say that many computer-related fields are still very strong, despite the fact that such corporate computer giants as IBM are streamlining their operations, lopping off thousands of employees. Their downsizing has more to do with the need to cut layers of mid-management than to reduce technical expertise, they say.
"Everybody is confused about computers. Just because IBM is cutting staff, many people think that computer careers are no longer desirable. But in fact, the computer industry continues to grow and computer skills will be hot for the rest of our lifetimes," Mr. Lacey says.
The same point is made in a survey of the Baltimore-area work force put out by Drake Beam Morin Inc., the international outplacement firm.
"The serious shortages are mostly with the technical folks -- in engineering, computer-related or other technical functions," says Anne Wolfe, a vice president in the Towson office.
Another good news field is health care. Members of Congress and U.S. presidential hopefuls can talk endlessly about reforming the health care system and controlling costs, but in the meantime increasing numbers of jobs are being generated by medical and health insurance organizations, says Audrey Freedman, an economist and human resource specialist with the New York-based Conference Board.
More than a million U.S. workers are now involved in administering the health care payment system and the number continues to grow, says Ms. Freedman. "There's also demand for all sorts of laboratory technicians, X-ray technicians, operating room specialists, therapists and, of course, nurses. American hospitals are going as far as Ireland, the Philippines and China to recruit nurses and have even tried to change immigration policy," she says.
"Right now, the health care industry is sucking in people in an uncontrolled fashion," says Mr. Lacey, noting that the aging U.S. population is one of the factors behind the growth of health care. "Ten years ago, the joke was that we were going to turn into a country where everyone just flipped hamburgers. Now it looks like we're turning into a country where we'll just be emptying each others' bedpans."
Job experts say companies of all sizes still need superb salespeople and product managers with proven track records. And small businesses still seek those with specific business skills in areas ranging from bookkeeping to payroll preparation.
But for the mid-level manager whose career has been spent in a large corporation, there are few opportunities, Mr. Lacey xTC contends. "The problem is that these guys basically don't know how to do anything real except write memos and start meetings. All they've done is play office politics in a big organization. They're basically just corridor politicians and nobody wants them," he says.