Public sector's the star at science and technology job fair

By Steven Overly
Monday, July 26, 2010

Lines intertwined around a ballroom in the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center last week as about 500 postdoctoral fellows in science and technology fields clamored to meet with 25 potential employers.

The day was a living example of the field's hiring trends: Government agencies and contractors are still expanding, while private enterprise hiring creeps upward along with the recovering economy.

Sally Sternbach and her staff at Rockville Economic Development Inc. are the primary organizers of Thursday's career fair and conference, which is in its fifth year. She said four more employers sent recruiters this year compared with last but that the number was still down from the fair's high of 35.

As director of REDI, a private-public partnership aimed at bringing business to Rockville, Sternbach said she keeps in regular contact with area life science companies. She estimates that nine out of 10 are looking for employees, even if they are not participating in job fairs.

"A lot of companies are hiring," Sternbach said. "What I failed to appreciate is they're sitting on a backlog of résumés from a year of being hunkered down."

California-based BD Biosciences, whose bioimaging systems arm is based here, attended the fair to fill a few stem cell and cell culture research and development positions, said recruiter Sandra Mackey.

The company took a brief hiatus from hiring last year when the economy was weak and the gears of recovery hadn't begun to turn, she said. Now they're back, albeit cautiously.

"I think we would all like to see it pick up a little faster," she said.

The biggest issue right now facing companies is financing, said Carol Nacy, executive of Sequella, a Rockville pharmaceutical company.

"You don't hire if you don't have the funding," she said.

The issue is exacerbated for biotech companies, she said, because ever-critical investor funding has been low compared with past years as they back less-risky ventures or none at all.

Nacy said if the economic recovery stays on track and the market for mergers, acquisitions and initial public offerings continues to brighten, the next six or nine months could bring more money to bankroll salaries.

But the bulk of employers on hand Thursday hail from the public sector -- or the private organizations that have made it their primary business. The National Security Agency, Booz Allen Hamilton, U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center and the Food and Drug Administration were all looking to hire.

Michele Robinson, a scientific engineering technical adviser at Schafer, said the company hired two postdoctoral fellows at last year's event and hoped to pick up a few more last week.

"I think we're still on a consistent basis," Robinson said of the company's hiring. The firm deals in defense and energy-related government contracts, two areas of growth. "We hire based on what they need."

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