Survey the skies over Iraq and you will find an armada of U.S. military jets carrying sensitive antennas and communications equipment built and tested in a low-profile industrial park in Baltimore's Park Heights.
Employment at Nurad Technologies Inc., housed in what was once a London Fog coat factory, has nearly doubled to 135 in the three years since the Bush administration launched a huge military buildup and went to war. Nurad and the rest of Maryland's military contractors have been on a hiring spree not seen since the Cold War.
As Nurad scrambled to recruit the engineers it needed to keep up with its swelling order book, it encountered a job market crowded with rivals offering signing bonuses and other enticements to lure workers with critical skills. Nurad had to resort to hiring recent college graduates for positions it had reserved for experienced mid-career professionals.
Nurad's experience is being echoed at dozens of defense companies statewide as the industry struggles to fill thousands of openings for engineers, scientists, computer experts and manufacturing workers.
Stressed personnel managers are resorting to unconventional recruitment and casting a wider net - offering current employees everything from cash to big-screen televisions to recruit their friends from other companies.
Salaries for sought-after skills are being pushed up - sometimes to six figures - and young graduates are fielding multiple offers. In the meantime, companies, leery of losing existing employees, are providing perks ranging from in-house massage to on-site dry cleaning.
"The defense sector is in the midst of the biggest surge in employment in a generation, and Maryland is a bigger beneficiary of that surge than almost any other state," said Loren B. Thompson, a defense industry analyst with the Lexington Institute, a military think tank in Arlington, Va.
Northrop Grumman Corp., which has more than 11,000 employees in Maryland and accounts for almost 8 percent of the state's manufacturing employment, is hiring 700 to 800 employees for its Baltimore-area operations this year and expects to add more over the next few years, company officials said.
Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp., which boosted its Maryland payroll by 3,000 last year to more than 8,000 through new hires, acquisitions and consolidations, expects to add 2,500 this year - more than half of them new hires in the Washington area and Maryland.
AAI Corp., whose Shadow reconnaissance drone is widely deployed in Iraq, is looking to fill at least 100 positions. Waltham, Mass.-based Raytheon Co.'s Intelligence and Information Systems division, which serves an alphabet soup of intelligence agencies, has added 600 to its payroll this year in offices scattered across Maryland, Virginia and State College, Pa.
And at any time during the past 16 months, San Diego-based research and engineering firm Science Applications International Corp. has had openings for more than 1,000 in the Washington area, with a substantial number of them in Maryland.
"I entered this industry in about 1980 when Reagan was first elected, and the last few years feel very much like then," said Andy Humen, Nurad's director of advanced technology. "The business across the board is doing very well."
Hiring and overtime
When it was forced to hire recent college graduates, Nurad set up a rigorous training program to bring them up to speed. "We've been growing our own guys," said Humen.
Even as it built up its work force, the company had to require overtime to keep up with demand for its products, which are found on virtually every U.S. war jet.
Among them are "radomes" - cone-shaped covers that protect antennas and other communications equipment. The radomes become scratched and gouged as the planes encounter sand and other debris in Iraq's harsh desert.
Nurad expects continued growth will mean more hiring, and that could mean a tough time filling slots.
Recruiters throw themselves at capable engineers and computer programmers. Competition is especially fierce for those with essential security clearances, which can take from three months to almost two years to process.
Applications have swelled to 325,000, according to Caryl Clubb, a spokeswoman at the Defense Security Service, the wing of the Defense Department that issues them. It is hiring hundreds more investigators to speed the process.
That means workers scooped up while awaiting clearances have to busy themselves on nonclassified work. At the same time, companies are looking over their shoulders for rivals out to poach employees with the coveted clearances.
"If they have clearances, they're working, and everybody is stealing from one to get the other," said Robert Esti, who owns ClearedConnections.com, a secure Web site that matches defense contractors with job seekers who have clearances.
The competition is bidding up salaries to well over six figures for some skilled software engineers, Esti said. Demand also is strong for network engineers, analysts and linguists with defense industry experience.
Esti recalled one client who received an offer from a major Maryland defense contractor, only to have his present employer launch a bidding war. The two parties went through three rounds before the price got too high for the original employer.
Though industry recruiters attend frequent job fairs, advertise in newspapers and make regular visits to college campuses and military bases, referrals are the preferred method for finding experienced workers, Esti and others said. Most contractors in Maryland offer cash bonuses to both new hires and those who referred them.
"All of us are looking for the same people, so we know what you've got to do to get them," said Linda Hartwig, a spokeswoman for Arinc Inc. of Annapolis, which has hired 300 new people for its defense business so far this year. She declined to say how much the company, which provides communications equipment and systems engineering, pays in bonuses.
Raytheon officials said they have had to get resourceful to find and retain workers.
Employees who refer a friend in the industry are paid a base $3,000 bonus if it leads to a successful hire. The company recently delivered a 42-inch, high-definition plasma TV to an employee in its Virginia office who participated in a promotion to identify candidates. The company is reluctant to even speak of its other tactics.
"We do a lot of creative things," said Doug Heard, staffing manager for Raytheon's intelligence unit. "I don't know if I really want to tell my competition some of the things I'm doing."
To protect its work force, Raytheon also offers perks ranging from an on-site concierge service to massage therapy. In many locations, employees can pick up dry cleaning, get their car's oil changed or have their hair cut without leaving work. If an employee needs a new car or cell phone, the company will get a Ford or Verizon salesperson to drop by.
While the hiring frenzy has put pressure on companies, it has made switching jobs a matter of just picking up the phone for workers with needed skills and clearances.
Curtis Hodnefield, an expert in antenna technology, joined Nurad last year after deciding he was ready to leave his job as a senior test engineer and manager at a small commercial antenna company in Oregon.
"I went into the market and, yes, it was a hot market," he said. "There was certainly a number of opportunities and a lot of interest."
He was drawn to Nurad's unique technology and labs. He and his team test antennas and communications equipment in a large, cave-like room lined with ridges of carbon-infused foam. The foam absorbs stray radar signals, helping the engineers to test the performance of its antennas.
"This is just a state-of-the-art, incredible facility here," he said.
Osbaldo Cantu, who joined the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab last year as an information systems engineer, had five job offers in the defense industry right out of college. The University of California-Berkeley graduate already had security clearances, making him an especially sought-after candidate.
"I think if you have the experience they're looking for, then I think the demand is definitely something you're going to notice," said Cantu, who chose the Hopkins lab for its reputation and the opportunity to do high-level work integrating communications systems of the various military branches.
The lab has increased its staff by about 200 during the past two years and plans to hire 60 to 70 more scientists and engineers this year, said Ned Aull, human resources manager. New hires will be spread among dozens of programs fueled by pumped-up government spending.
"A lot of the work we're doing in the area of counterterrorism are really offshoots of programs we had already been involved in before 9/11," he said. "We've just picked up the pace and we're working for a greater variety of [government] sponsors now."
No end in sight
With the war on terror expected to be a years-long effort, industry analysts say the federal defense outlays that are driving the hiring surge aren't likely to diminish anytime soon. Military spending in the first six months of the year was up about 18 percent over pre-war levels, and this year's $437 billion defense budget is 55 percent higher than it was in 2000.
In Maryland, defense procurement contracts climbed 46 percent from 2000 to 2003, reaching $7.2 billion - about $1,301 for each of Maryland's 5.5 million residents, Census Bureau data show. Only four states pull in more defense procurement contracts per capita.
One of the reasons Maryland attracts so many federal dollars is that the state's major defense contractors have adapted to the changing needs of the military, industry analysts said. While they still make some of the hardware used on the battlefield, companies such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and SAIC are part of the industry move toward providing products and services that help military commanders gather and process information.
Arms to information
"Basically, the big signature weapons systems of the Cold War, like tanks and ships and bombers, are giving way to an emphasis on information technology, digital electronics and other products of the information age," Thompson, the defense analyst, said.
That transformation is reflected in the type of hiring taking place at Lockheed, the world's largest defense contractor. Much of its growth in Maryland has been in the information technology sector, said Linda Olin-Weiss, director of staffing for the company.
Lockheed is searching for applicants with linguistic skills or an intelligence background to help with its growing homeland defense contracts. But it also is looking for software engineers, systems engineers and network architects who can write the software the government needs to do everything from process Social Security checks to track down terrorist funding sources.
Pinning down the exact number of defense jobs in Maryland is difficult because it cuts across so many industry sectors. Every new high-tech engineering and manufacturing job contributes anywhere from $150,000 to $200,000 to the state's economy every year, said Richard P. Clinch, director of economic research for the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute.
But the defense industry's powerful influence is a double-edged sword, Clinch said. While the increased spending helped to insulate Maryland's economy from the slowdown that hit the nation last year and early this year, the opposite happened when defense budgets were slashed after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, making the recession here much more severe.
"At some point, hopefully, peace will break out," he said. "These are high-paying jobs, but what goes up inevitably goes down. Clearly, in the next five years, defense will continue to be a core stabilizer in the Maryland economy, but as things stabilize internationally, we could find ourselves in a repeat of what happened in '91-'92."
Contractors with area operations
Key facts on defense contractors with area operations:
Northrop Grumman Corp.
Headquarters: Los Angeles
Employees: More than 11,000 in Maryland
Hires: 700 to 800 in Baltimore area
Business: Manufactures a broad range of combat avionics, military electronics, satellite systems, missile systems etc.
Sales: $26.2 billion in 2003, including a record $6 billion at its Linthicum- based Electronic Systems
Lockheed Martin Corp.
Employees: More than 8,000 in Maryland
Hires: 2,500 hires in Maryland/ Washington area
Business: World's largest defense contractor. Maryland operations are a major provider of information technology and technology services to Department of Defense and government agencies.
Sales: $31.8 billion in 2003
Headquarters: San Diego
Employees: 5,192 in Maryland; 12,686 in Virginia; 44,000 worldwide
Hires: More than 1,000 openings in Maryland/Washington area
Business: Information systems, analysis and technology for broad range of defense and intelligence agencies
Sales: $6.7 billion
Headquarters: Waltham, Mass.
Employees: 78,000 worldwide
Hires: 600 at offices in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania
Business: Missile defense, intelligence services, reconnaissance, aviation products
Sales: $18.1 billion in 2003
Headquarters: Hunt Valley
Business: Design and manufacture of tactical unmanned air vehicles, or UAVs; and military training systems
Sales: $310.9 million in 2003
Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab
Hires: 60 to 70 engineers and researchers this year, about 200 in past few years
Business: Research includes missiles, radar, sonar, sensors, space technology, etc., for military and intelligence agencies
Sales: Nonprofit. Receives $600 million in annual funding
Nurad Technologies Inc.
Hires: Roughly doubled staff in past three years
Business: Antennas and communications equipment for military planes; electronic warfare equipment
Sales: Privately held
Employees: 3,000 worldwide
Hires: About 300 for its defense business this year
Business: Navigation and communications for military and civilian customers; engineering, consulting services
Sales: $636 million