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Off Peak

Fortnightly Magazine - November 15 1999

Not so fast. But gas and electric utilities may follow telecom's hiring boom.

According to the latest labor statistics, employment levels in the communications and public utilities industries remained flat during the past year. (Communications, as defined by the U.S. Labor Department, includes telecommunications.) Rather than indicating a reversal of the declining staff levels at utilities, however, this grouping of industries cloaks hiring growth of nearly 40 percent in communications and continuing cuts in the energy, gas and sanitary services sectors.

U.S. Labor Department statistics reveal that while employment in the communications and public utilities category was flat during the past year, hiring jumped nearly 12 percent during the past decade. Most of those hires, however, were in the high-growth communications category. Employment in communications soared 38.9 percent from August 1998 to August 1999, or 30.4 percent during the past decade. Employment in the electric, gas and sanitary services industry, by comparison, fell 1.5 percent last year, or 10.9 percent during the past decade.

Reasons for the employment disparity between the two industries aren't difficult to see.

"Basically, with telecommunications there's just been so much tremendous growth in new products, new companies," says Chuck Jentlie, technical recruiter at Chandler, Ariz.-based Career Search Consultants LLC.

On the utilities side, "we're seeing a certain amount of chaos, and no one knows exactly what their direction is. Companies will tend to decide they're going to take a new direction ¼ but a lot of times, three months later ¼ they'll change direction again," he says.

"So we find a lot of people keeping an eye out for jobs, but not a lot of companies are actually looking for new people to the same extent that people are looking for jobs." Says Jentlie, "I think it's basically summed up under uncertainty."

Reducing staff levels at utilities seems illogical when one considers the work involved in unraveling restructuring rules, he adds, describing the problem as a Catch-22.

"[Utilities have] been in a monopolistic business for so long, what they probably need are people who've been inside a competitive industry," says Jentlie. "But on the other hand ¼ they look for people with electricity experience."

Once competition is in place, will electric and gas utilities follow the trend of the telecoms to significantly increase hiring? That's likely, according to Jentlie.

"Five years ago, we had specific cable companies and telephone companies and now they're all thrown into a big pot," he says. "Some of the cable companies are providing telecommunications, some of the telephone companies are doing stuff more in cable-related [areas], and I think you're going to see the utilities mixed into that as well.

"Most of these companies, whether utilities or pipelines, have some kind of communications system that's pretty advanced, so a lot of times they have excess space on it that they can actually sell ¼ or maybe start up a telecommunications side," Jentlie adds.

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