Hiring Hot Spots

These Companies Have Been Expanding Their Workforces Aggressively Despite the Weak Economy

In the teeth of the downturn, some of the best-known companies in the U.S. have quietly been hiring thousands of new workers.

The Labor Department reported that 36,000 jobs were lost in February, in addition to the 8.4 million that have vanished since the Great Recession began. The unemployment rate still sits at 9.7%. But not every big company has been hunkering down and waiting for the economy to recover — some are expanding right now to gain market share while their weaker competitors flounder.

Looking at data from publicly traded companies, Forbes created a top 10 list of publicly traded companies that added the most workers organically in 2009. It includes blue chips like Amazon.com (NYSE: AMZN – News), Comcast (NYSE: CMCSA – News) and Lowe’s (NYSE: LOW – News). The group is a window into where the recovery will take place. Companies whose head count grew mainly through big mergers (such as Pfizer (NYSE: PFE – News), which recently bought Wyeth) have been excluded from this list.

With consumers looking to stretch their dollars, retailers that offer value have done well during the downturn. The wholesale retailer Costco (NYSE: COST – News) has been in expansion mode, adding 4,000 net workers last year and opening 16 new membership warehouse stores. Each location meant 180 to 300 new employees, says Richard Galanti, the company’s chief financial officer. Mostly hourly jobs have been added, but they pay well: $11.00 to start. At company headquarters, near Seattle, there’s been a hiring freeze but no layoffs. This year Costco expects to add 1,500 to 2,000 workers, based almost entirely on opening new retail warehouses.

Galanti credits two things. Everything Costco sells is in bulk and priced low. And, he says, “Over 50% of our business is food and sundries, and fresh foods, which are typically less discretionary in nature.” He says that in the year and a half since the market collapsed, membership renewal rates have been higher than usual and shopping frequency has gone up. In other words, more people are using their Costco cards.

Another company that has thrived during the downturn is the Apollo Group (NYSE: APOL – News), the parent of the ubiquitous University of Phoenix. That company added 3,700 workers last year. “Victim[s] of corporate downsizings have found the need to repackage themselves,” says spokesman Manny Rivera. So they’re going back to school, and the University of Phoenix has been hiring.

There’s another category of expansion, however, that is more exciting, what Northwestern University business school professor Andrew Raghezi calls the “land grab.” That’s when companies use a downturn to go after a competitor’s market share.

The cable television provider Comcast has been moving aggressively into telecom, just as Verizon (NYSE: VZ – News) has been moving into its territory with the Fios fiber optic service. “We took share from the Bells last year,” says Comcast spokesman John Demming. “We gained 1.5 million new customers.” The Philadelphia-based company hired 15,000 people last year, posting a net gain of 7,000 employees counting attrition. And the company still has 3,000 jobs open.

There’s a lesson for job seekers here. Look for companies rapidly expanding into new markets. Demming says that Comcast has been using its data pipes to hook up businesses with video, Internet and phone — and is hiring new salespeople and engineers to ramp up quickly. A new product offering, called “wideband,” features 100 megabyte-per-second downloading — 50 times faster than your home computer. “The company has opportunities for people of all different skill levels,” says Demming.

Another retailer on our list, Best Buy (NYSE: BBY – News), is taking advantage of the demise of rival Circuit City to expand. The Twin Cities-based electronics big box chain added 5,000 workers last year at a time when fewer people could afford new flat-screen TVs. This year it plans to open 50 to 55 new large-format stores and 75-to-100 small-format stores called Best Buy Mobile.

Some of the companies on the list are expanding in ways that won’t be of great help to U.S. job seekers. Cognizant, a computer outsourcer with big offices in New Jersey and Phoenix, added 16,700 workers — the most of any on our list. But most of these jobs were at call centers in India and other overseas locations. Still, Cognizant says it is hiring in the U.S. as well — 13,000 of its 78,400 workers as of year end were in North America. Says spokeswoman Catherine Marenghi: “We have five IT delivery centers and numerous sales and business offices across the country.”

Tyson, the giant chicken and beef processor based in Arkansas, also expanded rapidly in 2009, adding 10,000 net new workers. “In 2009 we entered into our third joint-venture poultry operation in China,” says spokesman Gary Mikelson. The company, which entered the recession with $1.5 billion in cash on its balance sheet, has been on a rampage, also expanding operations in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and India. But U.S. workers aren’t missing out; the company is also hiring at poultry processing locations here at home.

Suvashis Mullick/The India Today

Cognizant Technology Solutions

Teaneck, N.J.
Computer Outsourcing

Hired: 16,700
Total Headcount: 78,400

The company built new call centers in India — but also hired in its Phoenix delivery center.

AP Photo/Danny Johnston


Mooresville, N.C.
Home Improvement Retailer

Hired: 10,000
Total Headcount: 238,000

This big box retailer opened 60 stores in the U.S. last year.

Tyson Foods

AP Photo/April L. Brown

Springdale, Ark.
Meat Producer

Hired: 10,000
Total Headcount: 117,000

Chicken grower added poultry processing jobs in the U.S. and new international operations.


William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

Philadelphia, Pa.

Broadcasting and Cable

Hired: 7,000

Total Headcount: 107,000

The big cable company is making a push with telephone service and high-speed Internet for businesses.

Best Buy

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Richfield, Minn.

Electronics Retailer

Hired: 5,000

Total Headcount: 155,000

Best Buy has flourished since Circuit City went under. It plans to open 50 new large stores and 75 smaller ones this year.

Posted in Employment, Finance.

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