Is this desperation? Or just a savvy workplace strategy?

Freddie Mac, the McLean-based mortgage financing company, is so eager to find new hires that it yesterday gave away a new car and a trip to Jamaica to two current employees who had helped sign up new workers this year. The special prizes were in addition to the $1,000 bonus Freddie Mac gives every employee who refers a successful job candidate; workers get $2,000 if the new hire is a techie.

"It's a wonderful idea and celebration of talent," said Beverly Kaye, co-author of "Love Em or Lose Em: Getting Good People to Stay" and president of Career Systems International, based in Scranton, Pa. "Other companies are doing the same thing and using every trick in the book to send a message that we value talent, we need talent, we're desperate for talent."

Jennifer Garrett, Freddie Mac's director of employment services, said the incentives actually save Freddie about $5,000 in recruiting and advertising costs the firm otherwise spends on the average new hire. Current employees referred about 1,800 job candidates this year, and 140 of them were hired. That's about 30 percent of the annual crop of new employees, Garrett said. Freddie Mac has 3,400 employees overall.

"There are so many companies competing for the same [information technology] talent," Garrett said. "And we've seen a decrease in the number of tech people coming out of the colleges. There is just not enough IT talent out there."

The unemployment rate in the local metropolitan area was 2.5 percent in October, even tighter than the national rate of just 4.1 percent. Only five years ago, Freddie Mac hunted for potential employees using only print advertising. Today, "we are really . . . using a lot of different ways to recruit," Garrett said.

SRA International, an information technology firm in Fairfax, knows that firsthand. It has had an employee referral program for the past four years, not just because of the tight labor market, but also because employee referrals often lead to good, loyal employees, said Kerri Koss Morehart, director of recruiting.

SRA started offering employees who referred a new worker to the company a chance to win a car in an annual drawing, but soon found that employees would rather have the cash. So this year, SRA is offering a grand prize of $50,000, second place prize of $20,000 and third place of $10,000.

"The cost for employee-referral hires is the lowest," Morehart said. "We get very good people, and the retention time is longer because it feels like family. The [new hires] come into the company knowing someone."

Freddie Mac held its drawing yesterday for its grand prizes: a five-day, all-expenses-paid trip to Jamaica (donated by chairman and chief executive Leland Brendsel, who had bid for it at a charity event earlier this year) and a Volkswagen Beetle (color of choice).

Several hundred Freddie Mac employees milled around the headquarters lobby, looking eagerly at the basket full of names waiting to be plucked while they ate German food and listened to a Jamaican steel-drum band. Some had their children along for the party. (Freddie Mac has an in-house child care and high chairs in the employee cafeteria.)

Employees were given a few hours off work to come to the party. And Freddie Mac takes care of the taxes owed on all awards.

"There's no other company that would go out like this," said Kevin Cook, a business analyst who has worked for Freddie Mac for a year. He referred one person who is now employed in the finance department and would have chosen a black Bug had he been picked. "This is great."

Ezequiel Moreno was more than a little shocked when he won the $17,500 VW Beetle. Moreno, 23, is a facilities manager at Freddie Mac's Chicago office. His $28,000-a-year job includes repairing fax machines, sorting overnight mail, "anything that needs to be done," he said. He referred a "friend of a friend" who was hired as an administrative assistant in the Chicago office.

He had already been shopping for a car for his wife for Christmas because they share one car now, a 1997 Toyota Camry, and have a 2 1/2-year-old boy. "I called her and said 'Honey, Merry Christmas' and told her about the car," he said. "She started crying."

He had to make her listen to the voice mails congratulating him before she actually believed him.

"I almost fainted when I found out," he said.

He and his wife were both aware of the drawing, he said. But "we didn't even think about it. We thought, 'What are the chances?' "

Everyone in the crowded lobby at the McLean office knew immediately where Dorothy Shepard was standing when her name was drawn for the Jamaican vacation. Crying, shaking and screaming, she came up to the podium exclaiming, "I never won anything in my life!"

Standing in the lobby before she had to go back upstairs to her office, she exclaimed to no one in particular, "I can't work today!"