Getting a job with a high-technology company in California isn't the cinch it used to be.
A decade ago, the young industry was scooping up people right and left to fill jobs from the assembly line all the way to the executive suite. But now, many sectors are reeling from the wild swings of fortunes that have become nearly a trademark of this often charismatic industry.
What is left is a maturing industry populated by more stable, sober companies and an employment base that is radically different in content as well as size.
No longer are the employment doors wide open. Some have even slammed shut, at least temporarily, after flagging sales and an uncertain future have forced large numbers of employees to leave.
In the past couple of years, particularly in the computer and semiconductor sectors, cuts in the work force have been scattered like buckshot through all levels of jobs. Many of the blue-collar jobs in the industry have been taken offshore, dogging the lower pay scales from one Asian country to the next.
At the top, entrepreneurial founders are being replaced by skilled, experienced managers while consolidation has thinned the layers of middle management.
Southern California, which boasts perhaps the greatest concentration of technology-related jobs in the world, has not been immune. In Los Angeles and Orange counties, for example, the number of jobs concerned with making computers and office automation products has fallen this year by 7% in Los Angeles County to 19,400 jobs, and by 9% in Orange County to 13,700 jobs, according to state figures.
All this is not to say, however, that high-tech employment opportunities are nonexistent. In fact, opportunities, while limited, may still be more abundant in Southern California than in the northern part of the state that is home to the famed hotbed of technology known as Silicon Valley.
"In some respects, we could be seeing more" hiring demand in Southern California, said Dennis Hightower, manager of the Los Angeles office of Russell Reynolds, an executive recruiting firm, "because the companies here are more mature and stable and their needs are more predictable."
What is true here as well as in other high-tech centers, however, is that more of the openings these days are for specialized jobs, requiring greater levels of skills and familiarity with particular products and processes.
In short, companies have become more discriminating about whom they hire. Jobs for unskilled laborers are scarce, in part because of the trend to offshore assembly, and also because of the growing sophistication and automation of manufacturing processes.
"Increasingly, people have to have job skills related to the particular product . . . the grunt work has been shifted more to countries with lower standard pay," said Jerry Shea, a labor analyst at the Los Angeles office of the state Employment Development Department.
Blue-collar jobs are no more glamorous in high technology than in other manufacturing sectors. "High-tech, blue-collar trades are not highly paid . . . (and) the basic assembly work is not a spectacular area to be in," said Phillip E. Vincent, senior economist at First Interstate Bank in Los Angeles.
And where once they might have been more secure, many of the longest-held no-layoff policies of high-tech companies have fallen victim to the exigencies of slumping demand and stiff foreign competition.
Hewlett-Packard, one of the state's larger high-tech employers, decided this summer to cut its manufacturing work force across the country, largely because more efficient production systems have reduced labor requirements. About 1,500 employees took advantage of the early retirement and voluntary severance incentives and will have left the company by the end of this month.
HP's Rancho Bernardo plant in northern San Diego County, which makes peripheral products such as plotters and printers, is a case in point. A plotter that 10 years ago had 2,000 parts is being replaced by a similar product that has only 200 parts. Business is brisk for such products, but rather than hiring new, unskilled laborers to keep up with the demand, the Rancho Bernardo facility is absorbing employees from other Hewlett-Packard divisions. Many of the workers are retrained for the specialized manufacturing jobs.
Electronics companies are producing more dollar volume with fewer employees, said Richard C. Edwards, a securities analyst who follows HP and other high-tech companies for Robertson, Colman & Stephens in San Francisco. "It's a continuation of the trend toward more white-collar employment in high tech."
But where the larger firms, from Intel to IBM, are cutting back or freezing employment levels, the high-technology industry mirrors a national trend: Small businesses are creating much of the job growth. Many of the 3,400 or so technology-based companies in the Los Angeles metropolitan area employ fewer than 100, and they're looking to expand.