Putting a Face on the Top 200
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 26, 1999
We all do it.
Stuck in traffic during our daily commute, we turn to look at the car in the lane next to us and wonder. Where does he work? What does she make? Where do they live and how long is their commute?
Or, perhaps something more searching. Is the driver a cog in some corporate machinery, pushing paper all day long and answering to a succession of supervisors? Or is he someone really important, as many in Washington automatically assume they are, a worker whose daily toil involves some issue of national import?
The signs on the buildings that are the destinations of these workers, like those on our list of the Top 200 companies in the region, are familiar corporate names.
There's oil giant Mobil Corp., defense behemoth Lockheed Martin Corp., online pioneer America Online Inc. There are regional operations of national industry leaders such as AT&T Corp. and United Parcel Service. And there are the headquarters of such home-grown businesses as Marriott International Inc. and Rouse Co.
But the names don't reveal much. Many of the buildings look identical, a dozen or fewer floors with windows spaced evenly, cubicle offices neatly arrayed inside to suggest equality. The workers could be busy calculating interest payments on student loans, or searching for the genetic codes behind certain cancers, as employees do at the biotech companies lining Interstate 270 in Montgomery County.
The chance to work on some of the most vexing problems facing society can be part of the reason the region is so attractive to well-educated careerists, say corporate recruiters. The attraction of Washington is different than, for example, Wall Street. Here, the thrill may be less the promise of huge financial payouts than the exhilaration of helping to design the latest smart weapon work in some cases so secretive that employees cannot even discuss it with their spouses.
"There's some pretty sexy work going on," said Earl King, who heads up recruiting for Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Linthicum, Md.-based defense electronics business. The facility, with about 7,400 workers in Maryland at several locations, is considered by industry experts to be one of the world's premier design houses for state-of-the-art radar systems.
"If you read Tom Clancy, that's as not far-fetched as it seems," King said, describing some of the kinds of projects engineers at Washington-area companies handle every day at salaries that can approach six figures.
A decade ago, the Washington economy and its workers were clustered in banking, real estate, retailing and, of course, the government. Today, those old-line industries have shrunk, the local giants bought up by outsiders or driven out of business by more agile competitors. And government employment has been on a steady decline, as the jobs are eliminated or outsourced to private companies.
"Today, it's a completely different region," said John Schwieters, chairman of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "There is a real migration to the new economy from the old economy."
The government's presence is still key, with about $71 billion more than a third of the region's output of goods and services in direct federal spending in 1998.
But the way the government spends money locally has changed. It now buys more in goods and services than it spends on salaries for federal workers.
Two decades ago, an employee might have worked in a government building, at taxpayer expense, processing paper or handling a routine clerical chore. A typical job might have been as secretary to a bureaucrat at some department or regulatory agency.
Now, the secretary is gone, replaced by voice mail, and the dollars go to an information technology services worker nestled in a look-alike building beside Dulles Toll Road in Reston who manages the voice-mail system remotely by computer but also spends time working on commercial accounts.
This picture of the region's work force at the end of the 20th century is drawn from statistics gathered by Scarborough Research and Mediamark Research, two private marketing firms. When the data is analyzed, a portrait emerges of the typical Washington worker, one likely to be employed at one of the companies on The Post's annual list.
"The typical worker is a guy with a college degree or more and who works for a knowledge-based firm," George Mason University professor Stephen G. Fuller said. "They're very professional; they work hard; they're very serious."
That makes Washington nirvana for marketers and retailers of everything from trendy pasta to bottled water to day-care services. Proportionally, Washington has more households with more than one worker (55 percent) than any other metropolitan area. Local households also spend more on average on drinking and eating out than even New Yorkers ($2,832 a year vs. $2,079). And a bigger chunk of the work force has Internet access at the office than is the case even in the region that includes Silicon Valley (28 percent vs. 25 percent). Washingtonians "work first and play later," Fuller said. "They're always in a hurry. They travel a lot. They have very good retirement accounts."
Over the next few pages, a portrait of Washington's work force emerges. These workers are the faces behind the names of the region's Top 200 companies.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company