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Innovation Economy

Where the jobs are in anxious times

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Columnist / June 14, 2009
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When times are good, Boston's executive recruiters and placement specialists chase skilled candidates like greyhounds after a rabbit. But when the economy turns, suddenly it's the candidates who pursue recruiters, calling and e-mailing in the hopes of hearing first about a position that just materialized, or getting a status update on that interview they had a few weeks back.

Anxiety runs up the corporate spine of nearly every business, from the receptionist to the executive suite. "These days, when I get a call from a CEO, instead of them wanting me to start a search for an open position, the call is about the CEO being worried that their company may run out of money - and they think they may need another job soon," says Pearl Freier, president of Cambridge BioPartners, a recruiting firm that works with biotech and pharmaceutical companies.

To gather some information that might be useful to those of you in the job market - or who worry you may be soon - I've been talking to local recruiters who focus on the innovation economy, specializing in sectors like technology, life sciences, and energy. I asked them about specific jobs and industry clusters where they've been seeing demand lately - as well as jobs and industry clusters where demand has died off. I also asked about what differentiates candidates who get snapped up quickly from those who spend months mailing off resumes.

Freier and others who work in life sciences say that many companies are focusing more these days on nudging their most promising products toward FDA approval, and less on cultivating their second or third products. Freier says she isn't getting many calls about jobs in drug discovery, but "drug safety and jobs on the regulatory side of the business are continuing to grow." Freier says business development executives "are having a tougher time," while doctors "continue to be in demand for chief medical officer or medical director positions." She also says she has been getting more inquiries about information technology positions at biotech and pharmaceutical companies.

Rick Hennessey, chief executive of Commonwealth Sciences Inc., a Norwood recruiting firm, says he has been noticing openings for people who have experience with high-tech lab-automation equipment. "Companies that are doing gene sequencing and high-throughput screening are looking for people who have experience with that equipment," Hennessey says. "And the equipment is moving into smaller companies, whereas before it was bigger companies with bigger budgets."

Bruce Rychlik, an executive recruiter at J. Robert Scott, says he has been filling positions lately at newly funded biotech start-ups like Cambridge-based Genocea Biosciences Inc. and Aileron Therapeutics Inc. "Every start-up needs a chief financial officer, so we've been seeing activity on that front," Rychlik says. "We've also been doing some chief scientific officer searches, since small companies are trying to hone their product strategy sooner rather than later."

Government stimulus funding has been creating new opportunities in education and energy, says Clark Waterfall, a partner at Boston Search Group. "We're seeing activity in for-profit education companies, and companies geared to distance learning and corporate learning," Waterfall says. In addition, many companies are creating a role for a "sustainability czar" to oversee conservation and environmental initiatives, Waterfall says.

In the technology sector, Waterfall says the entire software business - especially enterprise - has been quiet, although there's some action in software geared to the healthcare industry and software intended to run on mobile phones. In terms of specific job functions, Waterfall says that "engineers and salespeople are always perceived as must-have team members, but marketing and PR and business development can tend to be nice-to-haves in times like these."

A new role at many companies is a social media expert, who can help the company communicate with customers and prospects using new channels like Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. "Sometimes that job is called 'community manager' or 'community rep,' " says Tom Summit of Rowley-based Catalyst Recruiting Corp. "But the people who can get hired are the ones who can relate online activities to quantifiable metrics. What are you doing for the company, aside from just starting a blog?"

Summit says he has been seeing defense contractors like General Dynamics and Raytheon ramping up hiring. Cloud computing - technology services that can be accessed over the Internet - is another area of increasing activity. "I also see a lot of interest in search engine marketing" - making websites more prominent in search results - "and engineers who know how to design websites with that in mind," Summit says.

What's totally dead right now? Anything related to computer hardware or networking gear, Summit says.

Keith Cline of Dissero LLC says one position that can be hard to fill at the moment is a mobile application developer. "If a company is trying to build an app for the iPhone, there aren't a lot of people who have that experience," he says.

Also in demand are engineers with strong experience with open source software like the LAMP bundle, according to David Hayes, chief executive of HireMinds LLC in Boston (LAMP refers to a collection of open source technologies that include Linux, Apache, MySQL, and Python.)

Recruiters talk about three things that can make the difference between candidates who end up negotiating compensation and those who end up back at the neighborhood Starbucks.

First is emphasizing how your talents and past experience can address a particular challenge that the hiring company is dealing with. "In this market, if a company wants to find someone who has helped sell a biotech company to a big pharmaceutical firm, they can find someone who has done that," Rychlik says. In other words, focus on job opportunities where your expertise is a real fit.

Second, make sure the information available about you online will buttress your case with a potential employer. That can be articles you write for websites, a blog you maintain, or recommendations people write for you on the business networking site LinkedIn. "If your LinkedIn profile isn't as robust as your resume, you risk being overlooked," Hayes writes.

The last element is demonstrable passion for getting this particular job with this particular company - not just getting any job. "The people who have a true, passionate connection to what a company does - rather than just singing 'Kumbaya' because it is expected of them - are the ones getting snapped up in this market," says Waterfall.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.