Middle Managers Are in Short Supply

Despite rising jobless claims, some positions will be hard to fill this year, a survey finds.

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Job woes are in the news, but here's a different twist: Human-resources executives at some of the country's largest companies say they'll be facing a tougher hiring environment this year—not because they have no jobs to fill but because they'll have trouble filling slots with suitable candidates.

A recent survey of HR executives at Fortune 500 and smaller companies found they expect mid- and senior-level employees will be more difficult to hire in 2008. Most said they'd probably be paying 5 to 15 percent salary premiums to fill accounting, finance, marketing, sales, engineering, information technology, clinical, and midlevel management positions. Entry-level positions won't be harder to fill, according to the survey, and new hires in retail and clerical positions can expect to see the smallest bump in salary.

The results come as the Labor Department reports that new jobless claims for the week ending February 23 climbed above expectations and continuing jobless claims hit their highest point in more than two years. An index that measures help-wanted advertising in major newspapers was also down in January, prompting Conference Board labor economist Ken Goldstein to suggest the labor market "could grind to a halt."

But such widely reported unemployment figures have been masking the continued demand for employees in industries like healthcare, IT, finance, engineering, and sales, says Daniel Solomons, CEO and president of Hyrian, the recruitment process outsourcing firm that conducted the survey.

Accounting firms, which are thriving as corporations need to file paperwork to comply with the Sarbanes-Oxley reform law, are in serious need of workers, including recent college grads. That means the industry's top talent is hearing from company recruiters several times a week, says Ben Gotkin, national director of experienced recruiting for RSM McGladrey, an accounting and consulting firm with 8,000 employees.

"In our industry, [it's] associate level on up," Gotkin says. "The talent is that much in demand. They're getting calls from third-party agencies, headhunters; they're getting calls from competitors; they're getting calls from industry. This happens constantly." RSM expects to make between 2,000 and 2,200 hires just this year, Gotkin says.

There's also strong, across-the-board demand for marketing, sales, and finance professionals. William Rothwell, a professor of workforce education and development at Penn State University, says companies are being hit now with a "double whammy."

"For years, companies have been downsizing, particularly at the middle-manager level," Rothwell says. "And now the baby boomers are nearing retirement. There's a correlation between age and level in a company, so many senior executives are now nearing retirement age." Many companies have also been ignoring succession planning, he adds. In a bid to save money, they've cut back on training and development of midlevel executives.

At Christiana Care Health System in Wilmington, Del., executives realized two years ago that they needed a succession plan and a strategy for finding leadership talent. "You either need to go buy it or you need to go build it," says Sean Ellsworth, director of recruiting services at Christiana. Hiring an executive on the open market takes a good six months, Ellsworth says, noting that part of the healthcare supply issue seems to be a personality question: People who are attracted to the medical field are not always driven to leadership.

Christiana executives decided to start building their own talent pool, beginning by hiring a vice president of systems learning to lead education and development efforts for the healthcare system's 10,640 employees.

So how can workers make themselves known to HR executives and recruiters, whether they're looking to change companies or get promoted?

Phone a friend. Gotkin says RSM McGladrey hires about one third of its employees from employee referrals. Recruiters are also using online networking sites like LinkedIn.