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THE TIMES 100: THE BEST COMPANIES IN CALIFORNIA : THE HUMAN FACTOR : LEARNING TO AVOID THE CROWDS : Smaller Firms Now Offer Most of the Jobs

April 24, 1988|JIM SCHACHTER | Times Staff Writer

Small is beautiful--if you're a job-hunting Californian, at least.

It is the state's small and medium-sized firms that created jobs in 1987 and are doing so this year, not California's biggest employers as ranked by The Times 100.

Of the 10 top employers in the state among publicly held corporations, nine slashed employment or held steady last year, even as the state's economy created 399,600 new jobs. Troubled BankAmerica, the state's sixth-largest corporate employer, eliminated about 6,400 jobs alone--13% of its California work force.

And while the traumatic downsizings that gutted BankAmerica and some other giant companies' labor forces in the past two or three years seem to be ending, economists say mid-sized firms will continue to be the engines driving job creation in California through the end of the 1980s.

Job growth "is all in the middle," said Stephen Levy, senior economist at the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, a research firm in Palo Alto. "And that makes sense, because what California is known for is start-up companies."

Last year's biggest creator of jobs can't be called a start-up, though it was hardly a stodgy, old-line company. Scotts Valley-based Seagate Technology, founded in 1980, nearly doubled its employment from 1986 to 1987, adding 8,500 workers as the demand soared for the computer disk drives it manufactures.

Following a pattern that has devastated manufacturing employment nationwide, most of the new jobs were overseas, in Singapore and Thailand, according to Chairman and Chief Executive Alan F. Shugart.

But Seagate's hiring during the past few months underscores a trend that economists say can only bode well for the state's economy: The high-tech firm has put 800 people to work in Silicon Valley and expects to hire more as the year goes on.

Indeed, high tech--the industry that, along with aerospace, motion pictures, farming and light manufacturing, distinguishes California's economy from the rest of the nation's--expects a banner year in employment in 1988, at least compared to the battering the industry and its Silicon Valley hub suffered in the mid-1980s.

Nearly two-thirds of the high-tech companies responding to The Times 100 survey said that they expected to increase employment this year, and only 4% anticipated a drop. Silicon Valley firms are advertising for entry-level assembly workers for the first time in years. And the number of companies represented at high-tech career fairs in Santa Clara County is up almost 60%, according to Robert Lake, director of finance and planning for Westech Expocorp., which holds job fairs throughout the Far West.

The small-is-beautiful dictum holds in high tech, with most of the Silicon Valley job gains during the past year posted by small and medium-sized firms, according to Bob McLaughlin, who analyzes Santa Clara County's labor market for the California Employment Development Department. But some of the biggest electronics and computer companies--including chip-maker Intel and computer manufacturer Hewlett-Packard--plan to increase employment this year.

Aerospace--the technology-based industry on which hundreds of thousands of workers depend for employment in Southern California--can expect leaner times. Most of the aerospace firms responding to The Times 100 survey expect employment levels to be flat this year. But the end of the Reagan-era defense build-up is likely to mean employment declines beginning in 1989, according to David Hensley, who directs California forecasts for the UCLA Business Forecasting Project.

"We're going to lose jobs--there's no doubt about that," Hensley said.

Nonetheless, Los Angeles-area aerospace companies remain among the most aggressive employers in the state in courting hard-to-find engineers and other technical personnel.

Litton Data Systems, a Van Nuys-based division of Litton Industries--eighth among The Times' top 100 California employers--is giving personal computers to the first 88 employees who refer job prospects ultimately hired for technical positions on a tactical air operations contract the company obtained from the Marine Corps and Air Force.

Lockheed--No. 2 on The Times' employment list--pays workers a bounty of up to $2,000 for referrals. Nonetheless, the company is having trouble filling upper-level engineering positions in such fields as computer science, electrical engineering, artificial intelligence and new materials, according to Larry C. Ito, supervisor of employment for Lockheed Aeronautical Systems in Burbank.

It's not only the highly skilled who are in high demand in the California labor market, however.

In some parts of the state, retailers are desperate to hire fast-food counter workers and supermarket baggers, especially in affluent suburban neighborhoods.

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