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Tiny Slices Of Opportunity for Jobless Techies

In testimony before the House Science Committee in October, Purdue University Professor Eugene Spafford said information security specialists remain a "scarce commodity," especially at the highest levels.

Another highly specialized field hungry for workers is biotechnology, whose presence along the Interstate 270 corridor in Maryland continues to boost the local economy. Human Genome Sciences Inc. of Rockville, going on 10 years in business, hired 375 people last year. The company expects to have 400 more jobs in 2002, said Susan Bateson McKay, senior vice president of human resources.

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The company mostly wants scientists with advanced degrees who have experience manufacturing drugs for clinical trials or overseeing the trials. It also needs to fill research, business development, accounting, legal and some technical slots, McKay said.

"Now there are business issues across the board, systems being built for different business units," she said. "As companies like ours scale up, there is an increasing need for techies."

In biotech, as in other sectors, it's important for information technology pros to understand the purpose of the tools they create and maintain. That's why McKay recommends that folks interested in the field get to know people already working at Human Genome Sciences and rival firms.

The same goes with health-care groups and hospitals, where software to help with billing, patient registration and other systems are being revised to improve billing practices and comply with a federal law requiring health firms to better protect patients' confidentiality.

Roy Snell, a former health-care programmer who now is chief executive of the Health Care Compliance Association, said many software firms are trying to get into the health-care market, which should lead to more employment opportunities within hospitals and at outside consulting firms.

But Wayne Swann, vice president for human resources at the Washington Hospital Center, said that jobs in the hospital center's 100-person information technology shop can be difficult to snag. It's still not easy to recruit techies, Swann said, but once at the hospital, they tend not to leave because of predictable hours and solid benefits.

"We haven't had a lot of vacancies," Swann said. "It's been a relatively stable group."

What else to look for in 2002? Recruiters say that January will bring more layoffs from companies that hesitated to make job cuts before the holidays. And a survey by RHI Consulting of Menlo Park, Calif., based on job placements made by its 100 field offices in the United States and Canada, reports that base pay for techies will remain stable this year.

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