The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Howard County's largest private employer, plans to hire as many as 150 employees and expand its office space over the next six months -- marking an apparent turnaround for a facility hard hit by defense-industry cuts.
The hiring plan, which comes two years after APL laid off more than 350 workers, underscores local economists' predictions that Howard County's economy has emerged from the recession of the early 1990s and will grow steadily in the near future.
"This is a very positive sign," said Richard Story, executive director of the Howard County Economic Development Authority. "It is comforting and reassuring that our largest private-sector employer is not shrinking but is actually growing. It reflects a growth across the board."
Last fall, APL began recruiting applicants for dozens of new positions -- most in engineering -- to expand and modernize the lab's information systems projects, said Helen Worth, an APL spokeswoman.
Most of the hiring comes as part of a large Department of Defense project that will link military forces on the battlefield via new communications technology, Worth said. The research lab does more than 75 percent of its business through Navy contracts.
APL officials portrayed the changes cautiously.
"I wouldn't use the word expansion," said Dr. Gary L. Smith, APL's director. "This is a very small turnaround.
"We had a downsizing in 1995, and since then we've stabilized," he said. "We are not seeking to grow, but we're experiencing more stability in our funding and have adjusted the staff to meet our sponsors' needs."
APL's budget in fiscal 1996 was $372 million, Worth said, down from a high of $466 million in 1994. This year's projected budget will be about $370 million, she said.
Hiring called 'realignment'
Worth described the new hiring as a "realignment," with some of the new people filling positions that opened because of recent retirements or resignations and had gone unfilled. Lab officials said they do not expect to exceed by much their base level of about 2,700 employees.
None of the new hires will come from among the 350 workers who were laid off in 1995, because their skills aren't needed for the lab's new projects, officials said.
Experts say the changes at APL are another clear sign that the county economy is on the upswing and is one of the healthiest in the Baltimore area.
About 4,500 jobs were added in the county last year, the fifth consecutive annual increase of 5 percent, Story said. There are no signs that the growth is slowing, he said.
"The beauty of Howard County is that it is able to offer such a gigantic labor force to any industry that locates there," said Anirban Basu, an economist with the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson State University. "They have the first- or second-largest concentration of scientists in the country. The county's performance has been remarkable."
Real estate sales, especially in the areas closest to Interstate 95 and surrounding APL, have boomed since fall, said Joan Cochran, a longtime real estate agent. Until then, sales had been sluggish for about five years, she said.
'A positive sign'
"I can't really say the boom is because of APL, but it is in a great location, and the fact that they are hiring is a positive sign that the economy in general is doing well," Cochran said.
Basu said, "APL is a successful organization in a successful county. Although it's not a huge company, it's major in its niche, which is information systems."
Basu and others said that despite extensive cutbacks in many areas of the defense industry in recent years, some areas are rebounding, including communications technology.
"Information warfare," as the field is called, includes communications satellites, pagers and computers in airplanes and other vehicles.
Defense spending in information technologies is difficult to track because it so spread out, experts said.
"The trend [in defense] has been consolidation and closing up of facilities," said David H. Napier, an analyst for the Aerospace Industries Association in Washington. "But, just like everyone else, defense industries are more reliant on personal computers and getting everybody to talk to one another. Systems-building is definitely becoming more crucial."
Worth said, "There is a push to link all segments of the armed forces. This is a priority now, to have more extensive and robust" new machinery for information systems.
For example, one new large APL project will allow military vehicles -- airplanes, ships and tanks -- to communicate on the battlefield and retrieve the same computer images, Worth said.
Another project -- which will be housed in the temporary office buildings that APL plans to add in coming months -- will help the Navy create a sophisticated virtual battlefield.
The new buildings will add a few thousand square feet of office space to the 356-acre campus, officials said. The current facilities are "a little bit crowded," Worth said.
The 54-year-old lab has no plan to add permanent office space.
For the moment, officials at the 54-year-old lab say, they are looking ahead.
"We think the future looks good," said Smith, the lab's director. "But we're not relaxing. We think a high degree of change is still to come in the industry, and we think we need to be responsive to that."
Pub Date: 2/02/97