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Technology leading way out of recession for jobs

By John Dyer
Globe Correspondent / October 10, 2010

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Tired of the anxiety and uncertainty that hangs over your industry from the recession? Maybe it’s time to look for work in a more stable corner of the economy, such as . . . high tech.

Hard as it may be to believe, what used to be seen as the ultimate see-sawing sector has fared much better than most industries in riding out the recession and adding jobs as the economy now recovers.

High-tech companies were not hit as hard by the big economic downturn that began in 2008 with the collapse of the subprime mortgage market and morphed into a global financial crisis. Companies in computer systems design, for example, shed around 5 percent of their workforce during the recession’s darkest days, but have since rebounded to its peak levels.

In its latest survey of local labor markets and economic conditions, the Federal Reserve Bank reported that staffing firms in the New England area reported their largest demand was from technology firms. Software companies, for example, are reporting annual revenue increases of as much as 15 percent, allowing them to spend money on new hires.

And it’s supposed to get better: Just last month the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that the computer systems design sector will grow by 45 percent over the next eight years, one of the fastest growing in the economy.

But programmers and other high-tech employees looking for a job shouldn’t start shopping for new cars just yet. Companies are being very cautious about adding new workers, and when they do, it’s ever-so-slowly.

“While there is an increase, a slow and relatively steady increase in the amount of tech executive searches,’’ said headhunter David Mather, a partner at Amrop Battalia Winston, “the process for clients is taking much longer because they believe they can be exceptionally more picky.’’

Another industry that is also a cornerstone of the Massachusetts economy and has fared relatively well is biotech. This only slightly trailed the conventional technology sector in employment, shedding around 4 percent of its employees in Massachusetts from the peak of the last economic boom to the bottom of the recession. In government employment surveys, biotech is counted in the category for chemical manufacturing, which has around 17,600 employees in Massachusetts today.

And David Lucchino is trying to add to that total. Chief executive of Semprus Biosciences, a Cambridge company that is trying to curb infections patients get from using medical devices, Lucchino has doubled his staff to 22 in the past year and expects to hire as many as seven more soon.

The market his company is targeting isn’t going to change with the direction of the stock market. Infections from catheters, for example, kill 55,000 people a year, Lucchino said.

“At the nadir of the economic crisis, we were still able to raise venture capital,’’ Lucchino said of Semprus’s $10.5 million fund-raising several years ago. “We’re not tied to mortgage rates or inflation or interest rates. We’re not doing financial engineering. We’re focused on delivering effective and high-quality health care.’’

Meanwhile two of Massachusetts’s core industries continue to remain among its most stable: health care and education. Both actually grew in employment during the recession: 5 percent for health care, or 21,800 new jobs from the bottom of the recession in Massachusetts in March 2008; and private universities and schools added almost 10,000 jobs in the same period.

Gus Faucher, an economist at Moody’s Analytics, speculated that the federal stimulus funding might have helped both sectors. Less lucky were some industries important to downtown Boston, and the Route 128 beltway: engineering, legal, and architectural services.

“In a place like Boston, a lot of the legal work was tied to financial services and real estate,’’ Faucher said. “There’s just a lot less going on there.’’ Local law firms and other employers cut 3,400 legal jobs in Massachusetts during the downturn, a whopping 11 percent reduction that put it among the worst of all sectors in the region for job losses. Since the bottom of the recession in February, around 500 lawyers and other workers have found new jobs in legal work, Faucher said, but the sector still remains under pressure.

“The big law firm model is ratcheted toward the bull market,’’ said attorney Francis Morrissey. “If you were going to work for the bank documenting a healthy deal, you don’t have it. If you were going to represent the buyer, you don’t have that. If you’re doing the permitting, you don’t get that.’’

Lawyers such as Morrissey are re-thinking their careers. Last year, when it became clear big clients weren’t restoring their legal budgets, Morrissey left the downtown offices of a major law firm, to start his own boutique firm in Braintree with two partners. He’s been able to drum up business by charging hourly rates well below that of his former big firm.

“There’s not always security in those large firms,’’ Morrissey said. “You’re limited to a small section of the market. You can work on huge deals, but you can’t go for the medium and smaller deals.’’

Among the legal work Morrissey has snared: bankruptcy litigation. Legal work in downtown Boston also feeds off finance and insurance companies, which have had their own problems. Faucher said the financial sector in the region shed approximately 9,100 jobs, or 5 percent, in the downturn.

While some investment firms have hired workers here and there, the industry as a whole remains slow. Real estate also continues to suffer from the lack of financing necessary for new construction and demand for office space from companies elsewhere in the economy. The ripple effect continues into the architecture and engineering disciplines, where at the slowest period during the recession, Faucher said some 8 percent of architects, engineers, and other employees in the field had lost their jobs.

“It’s the rare firm that has not had layoffs and has not had to right-size their company because of the recession,’’ said Bob Hoye, chief executive of TRO Jung|Brannen, an architecture firm in Boston. The firm now employs around 250, down from around 320 at the last peak, he said.

So TRO Jung|Brannen is adapting. Prior to the recession, nearly all of the firm’s commissions were private. Now it is pursuing more government projects, such as a $220 million US veterans hospital in upstate New York and a $76 million data center in Springfield that will house the state’s electronic records.

And the firm is expecting to have job opportunities not just for architects and engineers. TRO Jung|Brannen is moving into the green building field, and it now evaluates the carbon footprints of buildings. It also consults with clients on matters like furniture procurement for large medical facilities, for example, he said.

Hoye also remained confident that Boston will continue to provide good employment opportunities for quality architects and engineers.

“There is now and always will be a vibrant pulse to the architectural heart of this city,’’ he said. “The new normal will be more challenging than the pre-recession environment for construction. Our firm is simply adapting for that inevitability, but I remain optimistic.’’