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A woman walks past a 'Help wanted' sign at a retail store in Ottawa, in this file photo from Nov. 2, 2017.


Shawn Banerji’s services do not come cheap. A top headhunter, he typically has several searches under way at once, each of which can cost the companies that hire him a six-figure retainer.

In April and May, when the coronavirus pandemic shut the economy, he had just one executive spot to fill. Now he has five new assignments, as corporate hiring has rebounded in June.

“I’m feeling bullish,” said Mr. Banerji, who works from Stamford, Conn., and New York and places executives in tech-oriented roles at major companies. “I don’t think we’re going backwards.”

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The turnaround at Mr. Banerji’s firm, Caldwell, echoes a broader reawakening in hiring for professional positions, according to interviews with headhunters, recruiters and executives at staffing firms. Human resource departments are beginning to consider filling open jobs, and recruitment is picking up for high-level corporate posts.

But the recovery is uneven. More than one million new jobless claims continue to be filed each week, and certain industries are far outpacing others in the rebound from the trough a month or two ago. Jobs in technology, health care, financial services and consumer packaged goods lead the way. On the other hand, the headhunters and others say, hiring by retailers, apparel makers, airlines, hotels and academic institutions remains moribund.

And it remains a disorienting time for many veteran corporate employees. Even as hourly workers at restaurants and other businesses are called back, salaried employees find themselves in an unfamiliar landscape.

Melissa Kushner, 45, lost her job in April after 20 years in the apparel industry. “I never was laid off before,” she said. “I’m really nervous. It’s hard at my point in my career to find a job, irrelevant of COVID-19.”

“I’ve been doing a lot of networking, applying to different jobs and trying to figure out if I want to pivot,” she added. “It’s like the world turned upside down.”

Workers in areas such as technology are feeling more confident. Nick Harness voluntarily left his position in New York at JPMorgan Chase in March and has been looking for a job as a technology officer at asset management firms or banks since then, perhaps in his native Britain or a U.S. city such as Austin, Tex.

“I’m optimistic, and there are definitely roles out there,” he said. “The process has been slower, but it feels like now people want to close some of the conversations that have been taking place over the past few months. They want to fill strategic roles.”

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“Other than a week or two in late March and April as the lockdown began, I haven’t really had a dry period,” Mr. Harness added.

The recovery’s tentative nature is echoed in government statistics for the job market. Employers unexpectedly added 2.5 million jobs in May, defying expectations. And even though they have declined significantly, new jobless claims remain at historically high levels.

“There’s been a lot more activity in the last few weeks,” said Tom Gimbel, chief executive of LaSalle Network, a Chicago staffing company. After the depths of April and May, he said, “companies are adjusting to the new normal.”

Information technology, marketing and human resources positions lead the way at LaSalle, according to Mr. Gimbel. Increasingly, employers are asking to meet potential candidates, albeit in a physically distanced fashion.

“It’s been all though Zoom or Microsoft Teams, but clients are starting to say, ‘I want to meet face to face,’” he said. “They say, ‘Come to my backyard or the park or a table outside Starbucks.’”

One exception to the positive trend has been hiring for sales positions, Mr. Gimbel said.

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“This concerns me,” he explained. “At moments of confidence, you’d see companies hire 100 or 200 salespeople. We’re not seeing that, and I think that mirrors where the economy is right now.”

Another quiet area has been academia, with fewer searches for new administrators, said Shelly Weiss Storbeck, managing partner at Storbeck Search & Associates, a division of the Diversified Search Group.

“They’re a bit in no man’s land,” she said. “Colleges and universities don’t know what their financial position will be in the fall.” People are holding on to deposits, she said, since students at most schools have yet to find out if classes will be held in person, online or a hybrid of both in the fall term.

As a result, college trustees are asking presidents to stay on longer, rather than face vacancies. “The system is a bit clogged,” Ms. Storbeck added. “Hopefully, it will clear by late summer as more knowledge about COVID becomes available.”

That may be Ms. Storbeck’s hope, but it is looking less likely that the economic effects of the coronavirus will be so quick to fade. There has been a resurgence in cases recently in states that have reopened in the Sun Belt, and there are questions in many places about whether public schools and colleges will reopen as normal in September.

Also unclear is whether white-collar workers will want to return to crowded downtowns or dense office environments. Many have become used to working from home using digital networking platforms, just as they are shopping online rather than going to the store.

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These shifts in professional and consumer habits are powering the demand for executives at the companies Mr. Banerji serves. He has searches under way for roles such as chief digital officer, chief technology officer and head of engineering.

“Companies want to transform and adapt to the digital landscape,” he said. “They’ve gotten religion as a result of the coronavirus pandemic in terms of technology. They don’t want to let a crisis go to waste. This was going to happen, but it’s an acceleration.”

The financial services industry has long been an early adopter of technology, and Mr. Banerji is seeing a similar willingness to adapt to changed consumer and employee behaviours in areas as varied as health care, groceries and consumer packaged goods.

“This is about how customers want to be serviced,” Mr. Banerji said. “This whole work from home thing has also changed the landscape.”

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Like Gimbel, Mr. Banerji sees sources of weakness as well as strength. Apparel makers have been more cautious, along with the construction industry.

“There’s still a large degree of uncertainty,” he added. “It’s greed and fear – things are fluid.”

At ManpowerGroup, a staffing and placement company, the number of posted jobs has jumped 10 per cent in June, said Becky Frankiewicz, president of ManpowerGroup North America.

“No one is saying we are back, but we are cautiously optimistic,” Ms. Frankiewicz said. “We got into this overnight, but we are not going to get out of it overnight.”

Despite the increase in virus cases, states that reopened earlier have had more of a pickup in employment activity than states that remain under more restrictions. The rate of hiring in Georgia and Texas, for example, is running slightly ahead of the pace in California, according to Manpower.

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Manpower’s reach extends much further down the corporate organization chart than high-price recruiters like Mr. Banerji, who focuses on executive talent. But like him, the company is seeing a desire to fill technology positions like software and application developers, as well as information technology and security analysts.

About one in four jobs listed at Manpower has no location recorded, indicating it can be done remotely. That is up from 1 in 10 in January. The top remote roles include software developer and customer help desk personnel, according to Ms. Frankiewicz.

She, too, views the apparel industry as a laggard. “It has been very slow to recover,” she said. “I expect it to start coming back, but it hasn’t yet.”

The wave of national protests after the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis has also intensified corporate attention on the need for diversity, said Krishnan Rajagopalan, chief executive of Heidrick & Struggles, a global executive search and leadership advisory firm.

“We’ve been seeing a push for diversity for a while,” he said. “But there’s no question you’re hearing about it a lot more in the past month. It’s more than just placement. It’s about creating a culture of inclusivity.”

For some workers, it has been a matter of two steps forward, one step back in recent weeks. Alan Berman, an architect, had a staff of 14, including him, at his New York firm before the pandemic. Business was so good he considered bringing in a partner.

By April, he had laid off all but three members of his staff. Work has begun to trickle back during June, and now he is up to a staff of eight. When will the remaining workers be called back? “Not for a long time,” he said. “I have no idea when and if I will be able to bring back any more employees.”

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