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updated 2/9/2004 4:53:06 PM ET 2004-02-09T21:53:06

Over 140 people turned out, résumés in hand, looking for work recently at a hiring fair held by Cambridge, Mass.-based technology company Jenzabar Inc. The hiring fair -- in itself a rare phenomenon since the stock market bubble -- was held to fill about two dozen openings in the coming year.

The event is one sign that these out-of-work engineers, salespeople and marketers say is an example of the economy on the upswing and that their months -- and in some cases, years -- of unemployment may soon be over.

"This is the first month where I've managed to land more than one job interview in 30 days," said Chuck McAuley, who is working part-time in technology support. McAuley, a recent graduate of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, had four interviews in January.

"Before then, the last job interview I had was in November, and I had to drive all the way to Milwaukee on my own ticket," he said.

McAuley's switch from desperation to optimism is indicative of the mood of many people at the recent job fair. The job-seekers share a desire to work in the technology industry and a renewed, albeit wary, optimism that the job market is improving. They have little tangible evidence of a recovery, however, other than having more of their telephone calls returned by potential employers in recent weeks.

But they are putting their faith in reports that the economy is growing and that strong end-of-year financial results for many public companies and a climbing stock market bode well for them in the coming months. Experts say the economy is improving on paper, but that good news is taking time to translate into widespread job openings in Massachusetts' technology sector.

Jenzabar's hiring fair attracted recent graduates and industry veterans, the recently unemployed, long-unemployed and still employed workers starting to look for new jobs. The venture-funded software company, which develops platforms used by higher education institutions, was founded in 1998 and today is operationally profitable. The company neared $60 million in revenue last year, said CEO Bob Maginn.

Jenzabar, once nearly 400 people strong, has about 250 employees today and is planning to hire more people as the company expands its current technology offerings. About 80 people work in the Cambridge headquarters, with the rest in Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia.

"Only now, as we get into 2004, do people in my position feel we can start to look at how we can build again for the next generation of software," Maginn said.

Jenzabar held the hiring fair in part to generate buzz about the company, as well as to assess the talent available today.

"The majority of positions we're looking to fill are in the development area, as well as marketing," said Claudia Oliveira, executive director of human resources for Jenzabar. Other positions will be available in the second and third quarters. "The future positions we'll be looking to fill ... are in the professional services area."

As of last week, Oliveira had scheduled eight interviews that stemmed from the hiring fair.

Other local technology companies are also starting to talk about hiring. EMC Corp. of Hopkinton, Mass., though currently working through the integration of several large 2003 acquisitions, will begin adding new employees in software research and development and professional services. Ascential Software Corp. of Westborough, Mass., also recently began filling open positions.

Smaller Massachusetts companies, such as mValent Inc. of Tewksbury, PanGo Networks Inc. of Framingham, Eze Castle Integration Inc. of Boston, Storability Inc. of Southborough and Auspice Corp. of Framingham, also have plans to add new jobs in 2004. Many of those companies are venture capital funded.

Signs of life are showing up in life sciences, nanotechnology and software development companies, said Andrew Zaleta, a Boston-based managing director of executive search firm Korn/Ferry International.

"The IT budgets have popped up a little bit," said Zaleta, citing 2 percent and 3 percent spending increases by large companies.

That increased spending, even coupled with strong third and fourth quarters in 2003, is not having an immediate effect on hiring, though. Experts offer no definitive explanation for the lack of new jobs in what is considered a stronger economy.

"December's payroll survey was downright depressing for Massachusetts," said Alan Clayton-Matthews, a professor and economist at University of Massachusetts Boston. "It should be improving. Initial unemployment claims have been below the threshold of 40,000, which indicates it should be improving. That's an indication that layoffs have fallen to such a level that the labor market would be improving."

Video: Jobs data show moderate growth The number of people employed in non-farm jobs in Massachusetts in December dropped by 1,500 to 3.26 million, according to statistics from the Massachusetts Division of Employment and Training. Professional, scientific and business service employment was off by 4,200 jobs, at 430,400 in December. The statewide unemployment rate for the month rose from 5.5 percent in November to 5.7 percent in December, according to the DET.

One reason payroll figures may have dropped could be that hiring is being done by newer companies, which often are not yet on the radar of the payroll survey, said Clayton-Matthews.

Economic indicators show the technology sector should be adding jobs, he said.

"I would think hiring should pick up in the sector because the turnaround in technology investment has been very strong. Orders for technology equipment have been rising. Inventory has fallen," Clayton-Matthews said.

Still, companies are gun-shy about adding costs with new hires. Increased productivity, thanks to technology improvements and the trend of outsourcing jobs to cheaper labor markets overseas, could also be affecting the job growth in Massachusetts, he said.

"Everyone thinks there's going to be this huge upsurge. It's a trickle," said Korn/Ferry's Zaleta.

It's a trickle that starts with a high-level hire, such as a new executive vice president of global sales, he said. "Then that person, when he's on board, hires the regional folks," Zaleta said.

Thus, the openings for rank-and-file technology workers will take time to appear. Once those openings do appear, technology companies will have to brace for another challenge, as a more fluid job market encourages movement.

"You're going to see people raise their head and their hands, and all of a sudden, people who feel they weren't treated fairly are going to make those moves," said Zaleta.

© 2007 The Business Journals

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