Working for the government is in; working at start-ups is out.

That's such an oft-repeated refrain this new year that it even made the official annual in/out list of HireStrategy, an executive recruiting firm in Reston.

But what does such glib analysis really mean? A new survey puts some numbers behind the buzz.

Government contractors plan to increase salaries while commercial technology companies are putting pay raises on hold, according to the 2002 Washington Technical Professional Forum's annual compensation survey. The study also found that turnover was biggest at communications firms and fairly low in the government contracting and biotech/pharmaceutical industries. So it turns out that "in" means better pay and more job security.

The survey looked at compensation at 65 Washington area companies, representing 40,000 employees. The WTPF, an association of human resources professionals in the region, has been conducting this survey every year since 1989.

"The spending now is in the federal government," says Mark Avery, president of MarketPay Associates, a consulting firm that conducts the survey for the WTPF. "Commercial companies are taking a wait-and-see attitude."

It's pretty clear where the money is coming from. Information technology spending by the federal government in fiscal year 2002 will be about $38 billion, according to Input of Chantilly. But Input estimates that annual expenditures will grow to $63 billion by fiscal 2007.

Avery points out that while private companies are holding back spending in fear of war and terrorism, government contractors will be more in demand for wartime and homeland security projects, making for a lucrative cycle for those companies and their workers.

In technology, job seekers are certainly catching on to this phenomenon. "We're seeing a migration" of tech workers from private companies to government jobs, says Avery. In many cases, he says, workers are going back to government jobs they left during the Internet heyday. "There are still jobs out there," he says.

But are there enough of these "in" jobs to go around, especially as layoffs at large tech firms like AT&T and AOL Time Warner continue? Government contracting can't solve all the technology world's problems, although several companies in the business, including Computer Sciences, Northrop Grumman and STG of Fairfax, have recently announced plans to do more hiring.

Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, based in Arlington, says the WTPF results echo what he has seen lately: The government contracting outlook is getting better as the private sector technology environment has grown worse.

"The gap has narrowed," he said of the pay differences between government and commercial technology employees. "And even more importantly, for many people, there are jobs."

Avery says there are several skills particularly in demand, such as knowledge of information technology data security and network security and the ability to sift information and make sense of it, a process often known as "data mining." Miller agrees that security is hot but says the market has fallen for network administrators. It may be harder for some workers to get such jobs without security clearances, but Avery believes the contractors will pick up many of the laid-off workers in the area.

"We've got a security blanket in terms of these contractors," says Avery. "We have the ability to absorb these tech workers."

But Miller questioned whether commercially experienced workers will so easily make the transition. He sees technical experts moving easily from one sector to the other, but not specialists in sales and marketing.

"Some people believe it takes a long time to learn to sell to the government customer," says Miller. He also notes that while skills may transfer, government contractors tend to be much more selective about people's backgrounds.

Salary increases in the government contracting market were projected to grow 5.4 percent in 2002, according to the study, compared with 4.5 percent for technology contractors outside the government market. Communications workers were expected to see the lowest increase, 2.4 percent. Biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies plan the steepest increases in compensation, at 6.1 percent.

Conversely, while communications workers in 2001 experienced a 31.3 percent turnover rate, jobs changed at 16.3 percent in government contracting and just 6.5 percent in biotech/pharmaceutical, according to the WTPF study. Of course, "job nesting" is in, while "job hopping" is out on HireStrategy's list.

The survey showed a new shift toward incentive pay and bonus programs tied to company or individual performance, says Avery. That way, the corporation only has to reward the employee if he or she comes through.

"The companies are protecting themselves from the risk," he says.

The study only focused on the Washington region, and Avery says it is impossible to compare the results with the rest of the country, mainly because the government contracting business is greater in Washington than anywhere else in the nation. He sees that difference as a reason to believe Washington will rebound more quickly than other tech centers like Silicon Valley, Boston and Austin, and grow more strongly through its ties to Uncle Sam's pockets.

"It's hard to compare us to the rest of the nation because they don't have that economy," says Avery. Government contracting "is relatively insulated from the ups and downs."

Avery says it's primarily the government that keeps this area's unemployment rate -- about 3.2 percent, according to the Labor Department's November numbers -- down significantly from the national rate of 6 percent.

Those who aren't going to do as well financially, according to the survey, are executives. After Enron, WorldCom and other scandals, boards of directors are less likely to approve big executive compensation packages, Avery says, in part because of fear of bad publicity.

"They're worried about being on the front page of the newspaper," he says. In addition, because so many executives have bonuses tied to stock performance, they've lost pay as their companies' shares have plummeted.

Another trend Miller has been watching is the drop in H-1B visas, which let foreign workers stay in the country for relatively long periods of time. As companies grew quickly in the late '90s, H-1B visas became known as "high-tech visas" because so many people using them worked for technology companies. At the same time, says Miller, more American companies are hiring workers abroad, especially in India, where labor is cheaper than in the States. That trend could have an adverse effect on the employee base here.

Another new report backs up Miller's impression. Forrester Research said this week that about 500,000 information technology jobs held by American workers will shift overseas during the next 13 years as companies look for new ways to save money. An entry-level programmer in China is paid about 30 to 50 percent less than someone working in Tokyo, London or Chicago, according to Forrester.

Miller says the government contracting potential is one of the few good things to hope for this year.

"I keep looking for bright lights," he says. "But business confidence continues to be low."

Shannon Henry's e-mail address is henrys@washpost.com.