The recession may have crimped the industrial growth that transformed Prince George's and Montgomery counties 15 years ago, but employment experts say the right economic mix could spur a job boom that would buoy the region for years to come.
"With just a little easing of the economy, we'd be in a very enviable position," predicted Burton W. Oliver, the tall, courtly director of Prince George's economic development department. "We've got the room for the offices, the office parks and the housing to support that at an affordable rate. In terms of jobs for the rest of the decade, we've got the greatest potential around."
Oliver and other employment experts say that potential cannot be tapped until interest rates drop and developers resume the kind of projects that in the past kept unemployment in the two counties down to nearly half of the statewide rate. In July, the state average was 8.6 percent, while Montgomery's was 4.5 and Prince George's 6.2 percent.
"We need the guy who comes along and builds a decent office park and attracts the top business, the entrepreneurial activity and risk-taking to build first-class facilities and create jobs," said George Smith, a staff economist in Oliver's office.
In Montgomery, the availability of jobs is so consistently high that "it's almost like we're in a different country," said Kerry A. Rice, owner-manager of Dunhill of Rockville Inc., one of 300 offices of a national recruiting and placement chain.
The two counties boast a pool of qualified workers who are willing to commute long distances between home and office, and the suburbs' ties to the federal government have led to a local economy that, while "not recession-proof, is certainly recession-repellent," said Patrick R. Arnold, director of research and analysis in the Maryland Employment Security Administration.
"The economies of Montgomery and P.G. could suffer if we have only a mild recovery from the recession. Their stability has been shaken somewhat in the past year and a half," Arnold said.
But with an economic turnaround, "the two counties could be relative havens for job growth. And if we drop back into a recession, they will still stay relatively better off."
At their most optimistic, Arnold, Oliver and others see the following industries as providing the "hot" jobs of the 1980s:
* Defense. A virtual gold mine for job growth, especially if future administrations maintain the boosts in defense spending initiated by President Reagan. Fairchild Industries, Martin Marietta, Litton Systems Inc. and others would likely continue to demand aerospace engineers, systems analaysts and programmers.
* Computers and microelectronics. While not yet Silicon Valley East, the counties can "look for the day when even churches will have their own computer terminals--we'll go that far," predicted Paul G. Larkin, who has watched the Prince George's job market for 15 years as direc-tor of research and analysis at Prince George's Community College in Largo.
* Data and word processing. "Word-processing skills are the most needed right now if a guy's coming out of high school," Rice said
Just as ordinary typing and shorthand skills were valuable 10 years ago, data processing is in such demand that Dunhill has specialized in filling that bill and the workrooms of the high-tech giants along I-270 in Montgomery and the "Golden Triangle" development area bounded by the Beltway, Kenilworth Avenue and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in Prince George's.
* Communications. "Ma Bell's divestiture and the way the phone company's been going after its competition is opening up jobs we've never seen before," Arnold said, pointing to a flock of retail stores that the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. opened in the area.
Hundred-channel cable firms could mean a boom for everyone from advertising agents to "the guys hanging and burying the cable itself," Arnold said.
* Engineering. Some analysts are comparing today's engineers to teachers in the mid-1960s; in both cases, the demand for jobs was significantly underestimated, causing a shortage several years later. The experts see continued demand for engineers at nearly every level of industry.
* Health services. In Montgomery County, home of the National Institutes of Health, the Public Health Service and a host of mental health agencies, look for a strong demand for experienced nurses, lab technicians and other specialists. To some extent, Prince George's also will need more of those workers, the employment experts say.
In contrast to most of Montgomery, "P.G. does have several pockets of very low-income people. But it could come around if interest rates alone -- just that -- were somehow able to decline," Arnold said. "We'd see a rash of investment that would stimulate the regional economy for a long time."
The recession appears to have strengthened the need for temporary workers and increased demand for bill collectors.
"Temporaries are a good area in a recession," Dunhill's Rice said. Instead of loading up on full-time employes, belt-tightening companies are hiring a few temporary workers for shorter periods -- anywhere from two weeks to two months, Rice said.
He noted that one Montgomery County bank, with branches in Rockville and Gaithersburg, hired 12 temporaries to update files, collect new accounts and work by telephone.
After several weeks, the bank hired the cream of the crop as full-time employes, Rice said.
The use of bill collectors is widening, Rice said. With the cost of money so high in the recession, "everybody's concerned about getting their money in on time," he noted.
Prince George's officials say an already healthy job outlook could improve if any of 33 proposed major development projects ever get off the ground.
They say key job-creaters include such pending projects as the 28-acre Maryland Corporate Center in Glenn Dale, the 435-acre Science Research Park east of Bowie, the 30-acre Tower Plaza North in Calverton and Mitchellville's foreign trade zone, which has an 85,000-square-foot unoccupied building.
Industrial growth is one result of "the change in the county's image," county economist Stuart Bendelow maintains. "We're not perceived as poorly by the business community as we were, say, five years ago.
"We've got more of a track record now, and we'll look even better as Montgomery and Fairfax counties get pretty well built up."