A Place to Live and, Increasingly, Work
By Jennifer Lenhart
For all the talk about the number of houses Loudoun County is adding each year -- 3,000, making it one of the fasting-growing jurisdictions in the country -- it is adding even more jobs.
From high-technology firms to taco-making enterprises, new businesses brought in more than 5,700 new jobs last year. The number of jobs in the county grew by 11 percent to 59,000, and more are on the way.
Announcements came last month of two sizable new companies to be located on Route 7 by 1998: High-tech giant Advanced Communication Systems Operations, a unit of Stanford Telecommunications Inc., said it would move from Reston to University Center, bringing as many as 200 jobs.
Baan Real Estate, an affiliate of Netherlands-based Baan Investment, announced plans to build an office and training facility next to Lansdowne Conference Center and Resort, with 1,000 employees and students in place within five years.
This surge in new companies -- 260 last year alone -- coupled with growth at established businesses has begun to transform the county from a community of long-distance commuters to a place where people are increasingly likely to spend both their work and leisure hours.
"What we're seeing in Loudoun is the number of jobs available for the amount of work force we have increasing here," said Larry Rosenstrauch, director of the Loudoun County Department of Economic Development. "And we're beginning to get close to Fairfax in what Fairfax has in the number of jobs that are available for the work force.
"What that tells you is that we are far less of a bedroom community than we were a few years ago or than what people think we are."
One-tenth of the jobs available in Loudoun -- about 5,640 -- are in business services, including software developers. About 1,300 jobs are in engineering and management.
Demand among these newly arrived white-collar workers for restaurants, dry cleaners, lawn care, child care, automobile repair and other services has spurred a parallel growth in service jobs.
About 3,200 people work in eating and drinking establishments in the county, and 1,030 in hotels, according to the county economic development department. An additional 1,555 work in food stores, and 1,055 work at auto dealerships and service stations.
When more jobs are available in more industries, "you keep the income and the employment sort of contained . . . and you reduce some of the pressure on the transportation system and the people," Rosenstrauch said.
In both the high-tech and service industries, recruiting and hiring have intensified locally.
When the newly opened Lone Star Steakhouse and Saloon opened in Sterling, applicants who were not well-groomed and -- most important -- available to work any shift didn't make the cut, said general manager Doug Thompson, who has hired about 100 people whose wages start at $2.13 an hour plus tips.
"We hired almost everybody that was crisp, clean, energetic, even if they didn't have experience," he said. Most were high school students who are not old enough to work in the restaurant's bar.
He rejected as many as 25 applicants from West Virginia. "They lived an hour away and didn't have a car. They talked about getting rides from friends." He also rejected those who were available only before or after another job. Still, he had plenty of applicants left to choose from and hired 30 percent to 40 percent of them.
In Loudoun's high-tech community, job-seekers -- rather than employers -- hold the trump card. It's a buyer's market for computer programmers, systems analysts, and computer scientists and engineers, said James W. Dyke, who served as secretary of education under former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder.
Dyke, a lawyer who has studied hiring trends in Northern Virginia, said nearly 19,000 high-tech jobs are going unfilled in the region. He cited a recent study for the Center for Innovative Technology and the Northern Virginia Technology Council.
"You really see aggressive recruiting now," Dyke said. "You talk in terms of . . . `Golden Handcuffs': What can you do to keep people in these firms?"
The Route 7 corridor between Fairfax County and Leesburg, which some telecommunications executives compare optimistically to a nascent Silicon Valley, is at the heart of Loudoun's gradual transformation into a high-tech center.
New jobs also are springing up in firms along Route 28 near Washington Dulles International Airport.
America Online Inc. moved its headquarters to the area from Fairfax last year and now employs 1,100 people in its Dulles facility, a company spokeswoman said. All but about 70 of those jobs were filled after the move, she said.
Three big telecommunications businesses have clustered together on a promontory near George Washington University's Virginia campus. At lunch time, computer specialists spill out of Alcatel Data Networks and congregate outdoors, some making a dash for the jogging trails. There is a regularly scheduled volleyball game on Wednesdays.
Jean-Luc Abaziou, Alcatel's president and chief operating officer, said the firm, which provides an indoor workout room and showers, encourages its 500 employees to exercise on the job -- as a way both to attract and keep employees.
"It's very important that people like coming to work, and activities during the day that are not work-related are also important," he said. "During the workday you accumulate stress, so it's a very good way to let it go, basically."
Frank Loch, vice president of Advanced Communication Systems, said the community of firms conspicuously perched on a bluff overlooking Route 7 is itself a recruiting tool.
"There's sort of a research park forming there," said Loch, noting that he has gotten to know his soon-to-be neighbors, Alcatel, a division of Paris-based Alcatel Telecom, and Coherent Communications Systems Corp. "The preliminary discussions we've had have been good. . . . The atmosphere is very energetic.
"We're all competing for people with the same skills, and we like having the companies together because it appeals to recruits," he said.
Abaziou, Alcatel's chief, said the firm hires two basic groups of employees each year: "new [college] graduates from schools around here with degrees in computer science and computer engineering, and . . . people with experience in the range of three to five years in software development in data communications businesses."
The company identifies some potential recruits while they are in college, Abaziou said. About 30 of the 70 people hired by Alcatel last year were Loudoun residents.
At Stanford Telecom, Loch said, for many years "the typical hire had a BS degree right out of school, someone 23 years old or so." Now, he said, Stanford hires people away from other companies. "We use headhunters . . . folks that know what we're looking for who get resumes from other folks in high-tech jobs around here."
Telecommunications executives in Loudoun said they try to avoid the cost of relocating employees and hire locally whenever possible. Headhunting in Loudoun is fiercer as a result, as companies go after each other's employees and employees, in turn, lose their sense of loyalty.
Dyke, who is scheduled to speak this morning at GWU's Virginia campus on the high-tech employee shortage, said the solution "is not to steal other people's employees but to train more people to fill these jobs so everybody can grow."
"We need to get more people interested in math and science -- that's something that needs to be done in K through 12. The long-term solution is to grow the people who are the pool of workers."
It is a sentiment executives appreciate. Said Abaziou: "What we like about the area around here is, if we can identify good people at the schools, we don't have to do relocations."
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