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After attacks, resumes flood tech companies

Published Sep. 10, 2005

(ran in CI, TP editions)

(Final edited version not provided for the electronic library. Please see microfilm.)

How does a small company cope with as many as 120 job applications a day?

Visionics Corp. is still learning.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the company's biometric identification systems, which include computerized face recognition, have gotten a lot of attention. Chief executive Joseph Atick has made more than 60 TV appearances touting Visionics products.

But the media spotlight also has brought a deluge of job applicants. The daily volume of resumes has doubled, reaching about 3,150 since Sept. 11. A half-dozen people even have offered to help Visionics combat terrorism by working without pay for a time.

Visionics does need to enlarge its 200-person work force quickly by recruiting at least 20, and possibly 50, field-service technicians, project managers, senior computer software developers and business-development managers. However, few of the applicants in the recent surge have the highly specialized technical skills needed by the company, which has headquarters in Jersey City and Minnetonka, Minn. And sorting through all the unsolicited applications has required the company to divert precious resources.

Across the country, businesses in the security, defense, pharmaceutical and certain other industries have maintained or expanded their hiring during the past eight weeks. But with unemployment at a five-year high, many of these employers face the same conundrum as Visionics: a mismatch between their openings and the growing pool of eager talent.

"I'm getting eight to 10 unsolicited queries weekly from people who are suddenly interested in this profession, and half don't appear to meet our qualifications," says Greg Pettenon, the managing consultant of the Deerfield, Ill., office of Drake Beam Morin, a provider of outplacement assistance. The Boston company has added more than 100 counselors nationwide since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The systems unit of defense contractor TRW Inc. has run eight job fairs across the United States since Sept. 11 to hire 3,300 people during 2001, 300 more than previously planned. Most vacancies, which range from software engineers to intelligence analysts, require security clearances and extensive experience. "You need people who can immediately hit the ground running," says Judy McFarland, a human-resources director for the Reston, Va., unit, which develops and supports information-technology systems for defense, intelligence, public safety and other customers.

Like TRW, Visionics needs well-trained specialists because demand has ballooned for the company's technology. A flood of calls after the Sept. 11 attacks jammed its phones and yielded orders for passport readers and fingerprint-scanning machines from Dallas-Fort Worth Airport and Chicago's O'Hare Airport. Boston's Logan Airport soon will begin a test of face-recognition systems made by Visionics and rival Viisage Technology Inc. A dozen other U.S. airports are mulling installation of the technology, which verifies an individual's identity by recording facial features.

Visionics lacks "time to train people on the job. You need people with experience,"' says Atick, a 37-year-old mathematical physicist who is chairman and president of the company he co-founded in 1994. But Visionics has never before tried to enlarge its ranks significantly within a few months.

Before the economic downturn, "it would have been incredibly challenging to hire that many people quickly. Just finding them would have been a nightmare," Atick says.

It's still incredibly challenging. Despite the recent addition of two full-time internal recruiters, Visionics' human-resources manager, Megan Tormey, works until 8 p.m. three nights a week and on weekends twice a month because screening candidates takes so much time. Before Sept. 11, she rarely worked overtime.

"The focus is just intense," Tormey says. As she speaks, the phone on her nearby desk jangles repeatedly. "Ignore the constant ringing," she tells a visitor. "Those are candidates calling."

Other aggressive job seekers try to improve their chances by personally delivering their resumes to Visionics' Jersey City offices, a modest suite where a 3-foot pile of stuffed envelopes occupies one of the reception area's two chairs. Walk-ins, virtually unheard of before Sept. 11, now occur twice a week and typically lack relevant experience.

Tormey is even more surprised by applicants willing to work temporarily for nothing. She hadn't previously encountered such offers during her four years at the company. "They feel that by joining Visionics, they're fighting the war and joining the fight against terrorism," she says.

One volunteer was a female lawyer with project-management experience at her law firm. Another was a department store salesman eager to work for two weeks without pay. "I thought I might offer my consulting services to you and Visionics pro bono ... in return for learning the ropes," wrote a third prospect, a suburban New Jersey salesman with video computer systems experience.

None of the would-be volunteers reached the final round of interviews. "We're in a position to pick, pick, pick," Tormey says.