Chicago Tribune Cover Story: READY TO ROLL
February 21, 2001

By Barbara B. Buchholz
Special to the Tribune
February 18, 2001

When Chad Koshiol, 24, graduated from St. Cloud State University in Minnesota two years ago with a degree in business computer information systems, he had multiple offers. But Unisys Corp. won him over with a competitive salary and good travel opportunities. Unisys, headquartered in Blue Bell, Pa., is an e-business solutions company that provides a host of services, solutions and products for business and government groups. Its airport automation solution, for example, speeds travelers through check-in and boarding via self-service kiosks and intelligent baggage tags.

“The prospect of working with global customers can be quite challenging,” said Koshiol, who joined the company’s Eagan, Minn., office as a software engineer in the transportation sector. “You need adequate technical skills, in my case knowledge of certain operating systems and software packages.

“The company has its own virtual university, however, which allows me to access new computer-based technology. You also need communication skills because customers are located in foreign countries.”

In spite of the increase in old-line corporations laying off workers and dot-coms crashing, workers with a variety of technical skills are finding the job market a welcome haven.

Among the most receptive industries is transportation because of its increased dependence on more sophisticated technology. Ever since FedEx speeded up the timetable with its overnight delivery service, computers became more prevalent and purchases were made over the Internet; ocean vessels, airplanes, trains, trucks, buses and cars all began incorporating the latest technology.

The goals were multifaceted–to make their own travel safer, faster, more reliable and cheaper, as well as to meet the demands of companies with whom they do business. Those included manufacturers seeking virtual warehouse capabilities, retailers wanting to replenish inventories and homeowners wanting products quickly.

As a result, transportation companies needed more technical talent to do the work.

“Our own team to recruit IT [information technology] staff has more than tripled in the last three years to reflect demand,” said Ron Bell, manager of IT recruiting for Management Recruiters of Ann Arbor, Mich., which conducts job searches for the automotive industry.

“If you look at what’s under the hood of a car, technology is much more powerful, and the talent supply is short.”

Besides existing transportation companies creating demand, a host of new firms have been started because of technical advancements. Parachute Inc., an 18-month-old start-up in San Francisco, was founded as an appointment-only delivery service for fragile and valuable items such as food, computers, alcoholic beverages or large skis.

“We’re the last mile in the delivery chain for people who don’t want something left in the mailbox or to receive a yellow sticker and wait another day for delivery,” said founder Robert Smelick.
His company deploys English-style taxis equipped with global positioning systems and wireless-communication systems, and depends on the Internet and skilled technicians to keep everyone from manufacturers to retailers to homeowners in touch.

Transportation Techniques LLC in Denver is another new business. It designs, builds and services hybrid electric buses with an ultra-low emission. “The pollution for our bus, which carries 116 passengers, is less than from a single passenger car,” CEO Paul G. Szilagyi said. The first prototype was put into service in July 1999. There are now 11 in service and more to come, all designed to ease urban congestion and reduce fuel. 

In addition, a host of ancillary businesses have recognized a void in the market. Aerospan.com in Wood Daledebuted a year ago as an e-market business for buyers and sellers of excess airplane inventory and spare parts.

“I provide high-level guidance and design for the content development team, those who work on the Web site, including an online registration process,” said David C. Dilbeck, acting director of technical operations. His company already employs 100 and doesn’t fear crashing due to funding from individuals rather than venture capitalists.

Other firms are involved in the booming field of logistics, where the goal is to create the seamless supply chain to help companies get the right goods in the right quantity to the right place at the right time and for the right price.

Lynnette McIntire, director of marketing for UPS Logistics Group in Atlanta, a subsidiary of UPS founded five years ago, cites an example. “We might help a coffee company do everything from manage the flow of beans from South America to its headquarters in Seattle, put the beans onto trucks and get them to the stores in Chicago and let everyone know where everything is at any minute.

“We keep everything moving, and use the Web to share information. We don’t want a store manager yelling at our drivers.”

GlobeRanger Inc. in Richardson, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, is an Internet logistics software firm, started a year ago to “eliminate the black hole of information across the business-to-business supply chain,” said John Sweitzer, the firm’s vice president.

“We’re a computerized delivery system mostly for the trucking and rail industries,” Sweitzer said. “We notify people of where the vehicle or rail car is or whether it’s been idle by first alerting our system with a wireless device, which in turn notifies an owner, end recipient or customer by e-mail, fax, pager, phone. The result is better use of equipment and fuel.”

Still another company, Pilot Air Freight Inc. in Lima, Pa., which works with many Chicago-area businesses, is a freight forwarder that matches customer shipment orders with the best commercial route. “There are a thousand ways something could go from Chicago to Los Angeles, and we know with the help of our proprietary technology which is fastest and cheapest,” said Gene Malcolm, senior vice president of administration and information systems.

Competition has become keen for all the necessary workers, particularly those with degrees and work experience in engineering, computers, IT and math and sometimes business. Communication and people skills are also valued, particularly because a lot of work is done through outsourcing and partnerships, said Bell.

Searches for qualified applicants can therefore sometimes take months, said Aerospan.com’s Dilbeck.As a result, some companies have become publicity-shy about employees’ skills for fear they’ll be hired away, said a spokesman for one Chicago start-up that requested anonymity.

Yet others are confident they’ll continue to be viewed as a place of choice to land. Such is the case with IBM’s Denver global travel and transportation industry group, said Michael Hulley, the company’s vice president. “We’re seen as an innovative industry IT company that builds an e-business infrastructure to link all types of transportation businesses.”

Beside cutting-edge work, employees also seek competitive salaries, benefits, stock options and greater challenges , says Sam Saraf, president and owner of Management Recruiters.

Rakesh Garg, 33, has had lots of offers through the years and previously worked at Netscape and Sabre. He accepted his current job as director of product development at GlobeRanger because of “the opportunity to be the first to the market with high-tech solutions,” he said.

“An automotive-engine manufacturer may find that its engine blocks are going to be delayed, which could mean idle time on the assembly line,” Garg said. “But with a GlobeRanger e-locator, customers know ahead of time what delays will occur so they can plan alternate production.”

There are even companies like Tech Republic Inc. in Louisville to help those who want to get into the industry or have questions once there. It operates a Web site (www.techrepublic.com) where IT professionals can receive job information such as how best to interview for a job in the transportation industry, said Jeffrey F. Luckett, vice president of technology operations.

To find staff, companies are working multiple lines. Some depend on traditional newspaper and online ads and recruiters.

Others test new waters. Tradiant Inc., which builds e-commerce solutions for ocean carriers–a complex process because of language barriers, different booking practices in different countries and the many legs of travel–says because of its Silicon Valley location, it goes after employees its staff previously worked with.

The cost can be steep. Dilbeck of Aerospan.com said his company will get into a bidding war if necessary when the companies of potential recruits try to keep them. “We’ve succeeded in 75 percent of cases because our pay exceeds the market and we offer good benefits,” he said.

Some firms look for fresh talent by partnering with universities. Object Technology International, in Raleigh, N.C., a subsidiary of IBM Canada, , recently announced support for a new automotive technology lab at North Carolina State University, which includes a vehicle cockpit lab, simulation lab and programming lab for engineering students. Students gain hands-on experience, and IBM gets a ready-made talent pool.
Unisys Transportation alerts faculty at some schools of the skills it needs. If necessary, it will train faculty.
What is the outlook? A mixed picture, according to industry experts. Demand for many workers is not expected to wane, though they may not get the multiple bids
or premium salaries as the marketplace stabilizes due to laid-off staff vying for jobs.

For companies, location may be critical. “A lot of companies are relocating to the Midwest from Silicon Valley. They’ve heard the cost of doing business is less and the labor pool good, but that could make it more competitive,” said Dilbeck of Aerospan.com.

Some niche players think they’ll remain attractive because they offer a healthy opportunity whatever happens with the economy. BDP International Inc. in Philadelphia, a global logistics firm with a Chicago office, says its sector is projecting growth of as much as 30 percent a year over the next decade.

“When companies downsize they typically outsource activity they did internally to us and others,” said Richard J. Bolte Jr., BDP’s president. “Five years ago we had no offices in Asia and now we have 11. We also had none in Europe and now we have six.”