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THE CUTTING EDGE

It's a Wild, Wireless World : Telecom Workers Search for Niches in a Changing Environment

June 17, 1996|JUBE SHIVER Jr. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — When Bell Atlantic and Nynex combined their cellular telephone operations last summer, company recruiters scrambled to hire 1,500 workers to handle mobile phone customers who were materializing at the rate of 10 every minute.

But earlier this year, when the same two companies announced they planned to merge their overall phone businesses, the employment news wasn't so rosy. Company executives said privately that they expected to trim the payroll, and many analysts predicted that the final body count could top 3,000.

Welcome to the schizophrenic telephone business, where a combination of merger mania and increased competition is creating painful downsizing among operators of old wired telephone networks even as their wireless cousins are enjoying skyrocketing growth.

While the Baby Bells and the major long-distance carriers have cut more than 75,000 jobs in the last two years, the wireless industry added more than 30,000 jobs in the same period, nearly doubling its employment rolls.

The telecommunications sector thus illustrates the Darwinian struggle that is happening throughout the job market as workers scramble to find new niches in a fast-changing environment.

The fittest are surviving by adapting their talents to the needs of the growing side of the industry. Bell Atlantic manager Mark Emery, for example, left a comfortable management job at Bell Atlantic four years ago to launch an operations department for the hugely successful wireless start-up firm American Personal Communications in Washington, D.C.

But with more jobs disappearing than emerging in the short term, only the strong survive. And union officials say that most traditional telephone company workers are discouraged from transferring to their own companies' fast-growing wireless units.

Among the unfortunate is former AT&T phone center sales associate Bob Rumnock.

"Experience doesn't seem to matter much anymore," said Rumnock, 43, who is trying to establish a career in acting after AT&T rebuffed his efforts to transfer to another job earlier this year following the closure of all 338 AT&T Phone Center stores. "But I can't bad-mouth [AT&T Chairman] Bob Allen. I understand that people losing their jobs makes stock prices go up."

Executives in the wireless industry and other fast-growing segments of the communications business contend that the workers who are being squeezed out of the old phone company jobs don't have the skills for the new businesses.

For example, the firms that are building the new generation of high-speed wireless voice and data transmission networks--such as Bechtel Group Inc. in San Francisco and AT&T Network Systems Inc.--are mostly interested in mechanical and electrical engineers and experienced construction managers, and not the telephone operators, sales people and service managers that are mostly being laid off by the local and long-distance telephone companies.

The number of firms advertising for telephone plant construction, engineering and consulting experience has grown 20% in the last five years to about 700, said Alan Richter, a spokesman for Outside Plant, a trade magazine based in Cary, Ill.

"You have huge demand for radio technicians and field service technicians," said John Egidio, executive vice president of U.S. operations for Geotek Communications Inc., a Montvale, N.J., firm that markets specialized mobile radio services to businesses.

A good chunk of that demand is now coming from relatively small firms that work as contractors to the telecommunications giants. William J. Price, a former telephone construction engineer, launched Price Technical Services Inc. in Sacramento in 1984 and has since hired 129 people and amassed annual revenue of more than $7 million.

The company has designed and built fiber-optic and copper cable communications networks for US West, Teleport Communications Group, Metropolitan Fiber Systems and MCI Communications Group. And there seems to be no shortage of work thanks to new technology and growth in the wireless industry. In fact, Price is even branching out overseas: He says he expects to hire an additional 50 people to take on jobs in Russia.

By contrast, there is currently little demand for the sales, service and management personnel that are being laid off by traditional phone companies. Wireless networks are still testing demand for advanced services, and most communities haven't even gotten the newest wireless technologies such as personal communications services, a new digital wireless technology.

"The problem is that [the] emerging markets, in aggregate, are smaller than the traditional local telephone market," said David Goodtree of Forrester Research in Cambridge Mass. "New wireless phones, Internet access and paging are not enough to absorb all of the people being laid off. There is room for some people to be picked up, but most" will have to look elsewhere.

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