Hiring boom isn’t likely, but things are picking up

By Robert Gavin
Globe Staff / September 13, 2009

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It’s tough out there. No doubt about it. But after months of unrelenting gloom, there are glimmers of hope for job seekers.

The Massachusetts economy is on the mend, and the job market is showing signs of stabilizing. Temporary employment, considered a leading indicator for labor markets, has ticked up in each of the past four months. Key sectors of the state economy have posted job gains. Employers, who froze hiring in the darkest days of the recession earlier this year, are beginning to fill positions.

“Six months ago, people were hunkered down. Nobody was sticking their head up,’’ said Dave Sanford, executive vice president at Winter Wyman Cos., a Waltham staffing firm. “Now, they’re beginning to feel it’s OK to come out of the hole.’’

Certainly, no one predicts a boom. The economic recovery is expected to be weak, the labor market even weaker. The state’s unemployment rate, now at 8.8 percent, is expected to rise into next year as employers remain cautious.

But recent trends suggest a turnaround in the making. Universities and other educational institutions, which were slicing payrolls six months ago, added an average of 900 jobs a month from May to July, according to the most recent state employment data. Health care added an average of 1,200 jobs a month during that same period. Professional, scientific, and technical services, which include technology and biotechnology firms, gained an average of 400 jobs a month after shedding an average of nearly 3,000 jobs a month around the end of last year.

“Some of our stronger sectors are showing signs of stabilizing,’’ said Elliot Winer, a regional economist based in Sudbury. “The opportunities that are out there right now require education, training, and skills.’’

Technology, for example. Hiring is picking up in that sector after a long dry spell, said Sally Jablon Silver, chief executive of Sally Silver Cos., a Newton recruiting firm that specializes in the tech industry. Over the past year, orders to fill jobs fell by as much as 60 percent at her firm, Silver said. But last week, the company received nearly a dozen new job orders for wide range of techni cal and support jobs.

Silver couldn’t recall the last time the firm had that level of activity.

“It seems like it’s finally happening,’’ she said. “We’re starting to see openings across the board.’’

Those openings include Web marketing specialists, who combine traditional marketing with technical skills, and integration engineers, who get different software and systems to work together, Silver said. Most sought after are engineers for Java, a software development system used in wide array of electronics, including cellphones.

Sanford said Winter Wyman is seeing demand for tech workers grow in niche areas such as mobile media and Web design. A health care overhaul would also be likely to increase opportunities for software and hardware specialists, he said. Computerizing medical records is a key initiative of the Obama administration, which recently committed $1.2 billion to help hospitals make the conversion.

Health care, of course, has become a stabilizing force in the Massachusetts economy. It’s one of the few sectors that added jobs over the past year, according to state statistics. For example, Hebrew SeniorLife, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, recently said it plans to hire 250 workers - including nurses, nursing assistants, cooks, and food servers - for its new health center in Dedham, slated to open next month .

Other sectors are showing signs of life. Retailers, hit hard by the pullback in consumer spending, have added a modest number of jobs in the past three months. Restaurants and hotels, too, have posted job gains recently. And with companies paying strict attention to bottom lines as they wait for the recovery to gain steam, there’s solid demand for accountants, said Sanford.

“There’s no sense yet that the gates are open, the lights are on, and everybody goes back to work,’’ said Sanford. “But employers are cautiously optimistic that the economy is going forward. They’re just waiting for things to get a little brighter.’’

The gains in these sectors, however, are relatively small - just fractions of a percent of total employment. Many industries continue to struggle. Manufacturing and construction together are losing thousands of jobs a month, according to state statistics. Financial services firms, still shaking off the effects of the Wall Street meltdown, are cutting hundreds of jobs each month. State and local governments, hit by falling tax collections, are slashing jobs, too.

The overall outlook appears to be brightening nonetheless. A recent Winter Wyman survey, for example, found that 74 percent of the company’s clients planned to maintain or add staff over the next six months. The monthly business confidence survey of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state’s largest employer group, also suggests a thaw in hiring.

The survey’s employment index, which measures company hiring plans, has increased significantly over the past few months, to 43.5 in August from its low of 35.5 in March. Sentiment is still negative - readings over 50 are positive - but vastly improved.

“We’re approaching stability,’’ said Andre Mayer, AIM’s senior vice president for research. “All the indications out there are the economy is turning and that’s better for employment.’’

Robert Gavin can be reached at