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Software Hiring Grows but the Pace Is Slowing

October 26, 1986|CARLA LAZZARESCHI | Times Staff Writer

In the high-flying days of just a few years ago, recalled one old-timer at Hughes Aircraft Co.'s Ground Systems Group in Fullerton, a software engineer looking for a job was likely to be hired first and only later evaluated for the actual job placement.

"We needed them everywhere; it almost didn't matter," explained spokesman Dan Reeder. "The hard part was finding them."

But that was a few years ago. Today, in large part because of an 18-month slump in computer sales and a growing uncertainty among defense contractors, the demand for software engineers, computer programmers and systems analysts has cooled.

Although the number of these jobs in Southern California continues to grow each year, the growth rate has tapered off and employers no longer go to such great and, often, desperate lengths as to offer bounties and other financial incentives to fill their openings.

Furthermore, employers report that an increasing percentage of the openings in these fields call for three to five years' experience.

"The demand is still there, but it's not as great as it used to be," said Dennis McGraw, personnel manager of MAI Basic Four Inc., a Tustin business computer maker and the company responsible for creating the Business BASIC computer programming language. "Everyone is a little pinched today, and companies are trying everywhere to rebalance their work forces."

But there is still no reason for panic.

Unlike many job fields, the need for computer programmers, software engineers and systems analysts cuts a wide swath through business and government. In fact, many analysts argue that most business and government operations could not survive without the services of these workers.

"Program writers do everything from Star Wars to Word Star to Pac Man," joked one analyst.

Indeed, they are found in defense contracting plants, school districts, grocery chains, medical clinics, banks, department stores and manufacturing plants where they are responsible for handling payrolls, inventories and other management-information systems.

In addition, these same disciplines are needed by defense contractors, computer makers and manufacturers of all kinds to write the computer programs that direct the manufacturing equipment and form the brains of much of the high-tech products that the plants are making.

And then, of course, there are the software publishing houses themselves, the companies that exist to create and duplicate computer programs for businesses and home entertainment computers.

According to the California Employment Development Department, in 1980 there were about 73,300 people employed as systems analysts and computer programmers and specialists in Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. By 1990, that number is expected to jump nearly 50% to about 107,300.

Employers report that a sizable percentage of these jobs is with the myriad of defense contractors located in the region. Although no formal tallies are kept, these companies are believed to be the largest employers of software engineers and computer programmers in Southern California.

Unlike a few years ago, many of these companies say hiring is slow these days.

At Rockwell International, which will soon complete its contract to build the B-1 bomber, there are no immediate openings for software engineers and programmers, a spokesman reports. "We're shifting personnel around internally now," he said.

Northrop Corp. foresees only "slight growth" in the field for the remainder of 1986 and all of next year, the company said.

However, at McDonnell Douglas Astronautics Co. in Huntington Beach, executives are forecasting a need for 300 additional software engineers by the end of 1987, largely to handle its growing space contracting operations. Still, a spokesman reports that opportunities for computer programmers are "flat."

Another major source of jobs for programmers and systems analysts are the thousands of companies in Southern California with their own data processing departments to handle billing, inventory, payroll and other bookkeeping tasks.

Job placement officials at computer training schools in the region report a steady, but not red-hot, demand for entry-level programmers and technicians.

Still another important source of software and programming jobs is with the makers of computers and electronic components. However, due to persistently slow sales of business computers, hiring at these companies has slackened. In many cases, layoffs are more prevalent.

At AST Research Inc. in Irvine, the largest maker of accessory products for the IBM personal computer, just three of the company's eight engineer openings this month are for software engineers. None are entry-level jobs. At Alpha Microsystems, a Santa Ana business computer maker, there are no openings for software engineers, a spokesman said, and the last hire in this area was made last spring. Furthermore, both companies have reduced their work forces in recent months.

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