Reading headlines about the job market these days is like plowing through John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath -- it can get a little depressing. But a recent survey of nearly 200 execs from some of the largest U.S. companies suggests that the outlook for pavement pounders may be considerably better than it was for Steinbeck's fictional Joad family, who lost their Oklahoma farm and traveled all the way to California in a fruitless search for work.
Executives are more optimistic about adding to payrolls over the next four months than they were in January, says the recent study by the Broadmoor Group, a Dallas-based global executive search firm. That response is encouraging, given the slather of corporate scandals that have rocked the public's faith in Big Business -- and depressed the stock market.
Some 22% of executives expect to increase hiring within the next six months, 67% anticipate maintaining current staffing levels, and 11% expect hiring to decline, according to the study conducted by e-mail in June. In a similar survey last January, only 19% of execs responded that they might be hiring in the near future, though a smaller number -- only 8% -- predicted a decrease in hiring.
"GET ON WITH IT." "In spite of [the accounting scandals], Corporate America seems to be still fairly optimistic," says Randall Neal, the Broadmoor Group's managing director. "Except for the faltering telecommunications industry, businesses seem optimistic about the coming months. Companies are starting to see positive movement in earnings, sales, and orders -- and have decided that they have to get on with business [after the September 11 terrorist attacks.]"
Who's most optimistic about hiring? Financial-services execs, whose ranks were decimated by the dearth of initial public offerings (IPOs), mergers, and acquisitions that followed the bursting of the dot-com bubble. The Broadmoor Group survey shows that 30% of financial execs now expect an increase in hiring in the next six months, while 55% foresee no change. Meanwhile, 15% of execs predict a dropoff from current hiring levels, according to the study.
It's no surprise that the execs who are least inclined to hire new workers these days are those in the battered telecom industry, which has been rocked almost weekly by disappointing news or scandals. Only 5% of the telecommunications execs who were surveyed expect to boost hiring. Meanwhile, 14% foresee a decrease in hiring, and 81% predict no change. The survey was conducted before the news hit of WorldCom's financial shenanigans and its Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing.
HOLDING PATTERN. In several other industries, hiring projections are up, but conservatively so. The survey found that 12% of manufacturing execs foresee a boost in hiring for the rest of the year, while an equal percentage predict a drop and 76% expect no change. In professional services, 26% of execs expect an increase in hiring, 12% anticipate a decrease, and the remaining 62% expect to maintain the status quo. In the once white-hot software/technology arena, 26% of execs predict some hiring, 14% expect a decline, and 65% are betting on things staying the same.
There's still a gap between rising optimism about business conditions and the anticipated need to hire, the survey reports. Across all sectors, it finds, some 68% of execs believe that business conditions will improve by December, 30% estimate that conditions will stay the same, and a scant 2% expect business conditions to worsen. The bottom line, says Neal, is that many executives are in a holding pattern -- waiting for more emphatic signs of an improved economy before they commit to bringing on new recruits. "Most of the executives we surveyed are cautiously optimistic," Neal says.
In other words, the U.S. economy is a lot more promising than it was in John Steinbeck's day. So most world-weary jobseekers will no doubt find the happy ending that eluded the Joads. By Billy Cheng in New York