Companies in the Washington area have been snapping up new employees in the past year at the fastest pace in a decade.

At the same time, the volume of help-wanted newspaper ads used to find recruits has abruptly stopped growing, both here and nationwide, according to the Conference Board in New York.

A Conference Board index of the number of Washington Post help-wanted ads in the first half of 1999 increased just 1 percent over the same period in 1998, while the region's employment was increasing by nearly 3 percent over that time.

What's going on?

One theory holds that employers are anticipating a slowdown in the economy next year. If there's a downturn, "they don't want to get caught stockpiling workers," said Stephen S. Fuller, a regional analyst at George Mason University.

Other analysts think some employers have cut back recruitment because available workers are so scarce.

Another scenario -- the most frightening to the nation's newspapers -- is that corporate recruiters are switching significant amounts of business to proliferating Internet recruiting World Wide Web sites.

Robert Love, who oversees recruiting for EDS Corp., the Plano, Tex., technology services firm, said surveys show newspaper help-wanted ads are still preferred over online sites by a majority of job seekers, particularly non-techies and those who want to browse rather than search.

"But I think the gap will be closed in a couple of years," Love said. "The technology has gained tremendously and our knowledge about building Web sites has grown significantly."

An estimated 4.5 million resumes are posted today on 300 Web sites, a figure that is projected to leap to 11.4 million by the end of 2001, according to Computer Economics, a Carlsbad, Calif., research firm.

If that occurs, it will inevitably carve a swath through newspaper classifieds, analysts said, unless newspapers capture that Web activity with their own online sites and can make money on the transactions.

John Morton, a Bethesda-based newspaper industry analyst, sees no reason newspapers can't defend their turf because they control so much of it now. CareerPath, operated by The Washington Post and about 85 other newspapers, is among the largest online job sites, drawing on online versions of the newspapers' classified ads.

To remain competitive, however, newspaper Web sites must match the technology of newer sites, such as monster.com, that were created specifically for the Internet and can speed up and simplify searches by job seekers and employers, said Michael Erbschloe, vice president of research at Computer Economics.

"CareerPath is still a good site, but it's fading," Erbschloe said.

Last week The Washington Post and Tribune Co., two of the founders of CareerPath, announced they will form a new recruiting and resume site, BrassRing.com. It will offer versions of the special recruiting and job-hunting support that Erbschloe said was essential, and will compete with CareerPath, its executives said. How BrassRing will fare in a crowded, competitive field remains to be seen, of course.

The challenge of the Internet "scares a lot of newspaper people," said Ken Goldstein, a Conference Board economist, but so far, its impact is hard to measure.

But there's no doubt that the surge in employment Web sites has captured the attention of job seekers and employers and is likely to transform the recruiting game, many experts believe.

"It has the potential for fairly enormous change," Morton said.

More Jobs, Fewer Ads

Employment in the Washington area has grown by nearly 3 percent this year, but help wanted ads in The Washington Post have tailed off.

Washington area employment, in thousands

Average Change from

Jan. to Aug. previous year

1996 2,410.6 0.7%

1997 2,466.2 2.3%

1998 2,529.3 2.6%

1999 2,603.1 2.9%

Washington Post help wanted ads

Index of 100 equals number of help wanted ads in 1987

Average Change from

Index Jan. to July previous year

1996 45 1.0%

1997 49 8.5%

1998 52 5.8%

1999 52 1.1%

SOURCE: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Conference Board