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High-tech jobs remain the exception in the region

August 28, 2005|By DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

daniels@herald-mail.com

When Randy Brenize, Will Crampton and Linda Frakes were looking for a place to start their systems integration firm, Hagerstown surfaced as the most natural fit.

Civilian contractors at Fort Ritchie U.S. Army Base before it closed in 1998, the three founded NETCONN Solutions Inc. in 1997 and operated it out of their homes before moving within a year to a new office on West Franklin Street in Hagerstown.

"The founders of the company were working at Fort Ritchie when they closed down the base," said Judy York, president of Hagerstown-based NETCONN Solutions Inc. "When they started NETCONN, it was logical that it be in Hagerstown."

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No longer a small startup, NETCONN was ranked 12th last year among Deloitte's Technology Fast 50 Program list of fastest growing technology businesses and 28th in Washington Technology business newspaper's Fast 50 list of government contractors.

It also was named a finalist for the Technology Council of Maryland's top firm for 2004.

The company has won several large government contracts, including one helping the Department of Homeland Security consolidate 22 of its agencies into 14, and another worth $258 million assisting the Pentagon in restoring some of its computer systems damaged in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

NETCONN employs 143 workers, 90 percent of whom are engineers earning an average of $60,000 to $75,000 a year. About 60 of NETCONN's workers are employed locally.

Last year, when the company was considering where to locate a new headquarters, it decided Washington County was still the most logical choice. In June 2004, it announced it would begin construction on a new $2 million headquarters, and the facility would be in Washington County on a three-acre parcel in the Washington County Business Park.

"We are kind of right in the middle of our customer base," York said. "It also helps keep our overhead low, it helps us stay more competitive with our prices."

NETCONN remains an exception in a regional economy still largely dependent upon lower-paying distribution and warehouse jobs.

Recently released data by the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation indicates low-tech jobs continue to dominate Washington County's economy, despite efforts to lure higher paying, high-tech employers to the area.

Nearly 26 percent of the county's 55,872 private-sector jobs in 2004 fell within the trade, transportation and utilities sector, compared with 2.6 percent in the information sector, according to labor department data.

A deterrent to attracting those employers is the low level of education among Washington County residents, said Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission Executive Director Timothy R. Troxell.

Troxell said as more people take advantage of resources such as the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown and the Advanced Technology Center at Hagerstown Community College, that pool of potential workers should become more attractive to firms now outside the county.

"That's the group that we're trying to get and the whole reason is there is such a concentration of high-paying jobs in the Baltimore-Washington corridor," Troxell said. "I think the potential of us attracting that sector is pretty high Our client activity level is higher for these types of companies than we have ever seen it."

York said that while there are several benefits to being in Washington County, including the price of land as compared to areas closer to Washington and the ability to draw talented workers from across the quad-state region, the education level among Washington County workers is a deterrent for firms such as hers that are considering moving into the region.

"Bringing in more universities that offer advanced technology degrees, those kind of things are good," she said, noting the company recently hired about nine workers from Shippensburg and West Virginia universities.

The EDC narrowed its focus to higher-paying jobs within the past year after several large companies opened warehouses and distribution centers in the county. Those companies, including FedEx Ground, Staples and Lowe's, created a large number of new jobs but at lower wages than the county was hoping for. The average weekly wage for those jobs, according to the DLLR, is $562, as compared to $589 for information-sector jobs.

David Westrick, spokesman for FedEx Ground, said the company was drawn to Washington County because of the low cost of land and the proximity to major highways, including Interstates 70 and 81.

Westrick said the company also looks for areas with a strong labor pool of potential shift workers.

"Much like any real estate, it's location, location, location," Westrick said.

FedEx Ground began hiring workers for its 114-acre, $53.5 million hub center on Newgate Boulevard in Hagerstown in June and expects to employ as many as 400 workers by next month.

Westrick said the Hagerstown facility relies heavily on shift workers who are able to carry boxes weighing as much as 150 pounds and willing to work one of four daily shifts.

"It's not a 9-to-5 job. We need access to a number of people willing to work part time," he said.

At an average of $806 per week, manufacturing jobs still command the highest pay within Washington County, although the number of manufacturing companies has dwindled.

Earlier this year, GST AutoLeather, Phoenix Color Corp., and Fleetwood Travel Trailers of Maryland Inc., each announced layoffs or plant closures.

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