MINNEAPOLIS— LAST fall, Kevin J. Mattakat was studying telecommunications and computer science at the University of Wisconsin. In his spare time, he tended bar and did computer work for the college. He earned about $5,700 in 1995.
Today, at 30, he is making more than $45,000 a year at a subsidiary here of U S West, the regional telephone company, fixing the bugs that inevitably haunt complex computer networks.
I wasn't even in the market when I got this offer," Mr. Mattakat said, stroking his sparse beard and explaining that he was still a year short of a degree. "This was a job I couldn't pass up."
After years of corporate downsizings, many Americans have a virulent case of the economic willies. But the economy has another, more positive side. It is a story told by the millions of Americans who in the last five years have found new jobs that more than replace the lost ones, in industries as new as the Internet and as old as retailing.
Lately, the plot line has improved: In 1995, the percentage of new jobs that pay above-average salaries was double what it was in 1992, when the nation was just starting to recover from recession.
"The quality of jobs being created is steadily increasing," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Regional Financial Associates, an economic consulting firm in West Chester, Pa.
In an analysis for The New York Times using Government data, Mr. Zandi found that 45 percent of the jobs created across the country last year paid more than the national average wage of $29,420. In 1992, that proportion was just 22 percent. Of the new jobs created last year, fully one-quarter paid more than 30 percent above the average. In 1992, only 4 percent of the new jobs paid that well.
These jumps are encouraging, considering that many new jobs are for young people just entering the work force, and they typically earn less than experienced workers.
These statistics indicate that the economy is churning out better jobs than many Americans might think. As Mr. Mattakat and many other residents of the Minneapolis area demonstrate, many people are now getting "good" jobs -- way beyond the proverbial burger-flipping posts. And, writ large, what is happening here reflects the national picture.
"Minneapolis has a highly diverse economy that mirrors the national business mix quite well," Mr. Zandi said.
Mr. Zandi said there were no equivalent figures for past economic upturns, so it is not possible to compare the 1990's with other periods. But he said the rise in better-paying jobs appeared to be occurring at a somewhat faster pace this time.
"It has a lot to do with the sources of the new jobs," Mr. Zandi said. More than in past recoveries, he said, "we're seeing a lot of job growth in sectors and occupations that are high-paying." Among them are high technology, entertainment and construction.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics, in a June report, agreed. It found that the greatest share of job growth from 1989 to 1995 took place at the high and the low ends of the pay scale, with the greatest gains in high-paying occupations.
The coming months, barring an unforeseen recession, hold even more promise. "We're now in the second phase of expansion," said David A. Wyss, director of research at DRI/McGraw-Hill Inc., an economic forecasting firm. "You will see a general improvement in job quality, and people trading up on jobs." Typically, as an economic expansion matures, the employee pool tightens and companies have to pay a little more to attract and retain workers.
For all this demand, though, many Americans can still only dream of a better job. They simply do not have the education or the skills to qualify for good jobs. Some are chronically impoverished, while others are white- and blue-collar workers who lost high-paying jobs in corporate downsizings even as new positions have been created elsewhere. They have been unable to find employment with pay and benefits comparable to those of their previous jobs.
Now there may be a new hitch.
The labor market is tighter than it has been in at least six years. Since the United States pulled out of a recession in March 1991, employment rolls have climbed by 11.2 million jobs, a strong 10 percent increase, and unemployment is just 5.3 percent, down from a peak of 7.7 percent in June 1992. With companies competing for employees, some economists are fretting that wages, which are just beginning to outpace inflation after lagging behind it for years, may rise enough to cause a resurgence of inflation. Worse, they fear that many companies will not be able to find enough qualified employees to meet all their expansion needs in the years ahead.
"The labor market is the primary constraint on growth right now," Mr. Wyss said. "Companies just don't have the employees to grow. I expect the labor market to stay this tight for the next four years or so." New jobs, then, could well pay better but be fewer in number.
Geographically, a few areas of the country are still dragging. Most notably, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Maryland are not adding jobs as fast as the rest of the country. The New York metropolitan area is one of the few places that has failed to replace the jobs lost in the most recent recession.
By and large, however, the job machine is working overtime. Many brand-name corporate giants, no longer slashing staff by the bucket, have joined small and medium-sized companies in actual net hiring -- sometimes in large numbers, although usually in small doses.
To fill the slots, companies are going way beyond want ads, employment agencies and executive search firms. Some are holding job fairs, listing on the Internet and using temporary-employment agencies to fill low-end jobs. Increasingly, they are counting on word of mouth -- even offering cash and prizes to employees who recruit qualified people.
Many companies are luring new hires from other parts of the country. Some are putting high-school graduates into positions that once required college degrees and dropping experience demands. Others are making temporary workers permanent.
Here in Minneapolis, hiring efforts are sucking in people who would not have dreamed of new posts a few years ago.
"I didn't feel I'd be a hot commodity," said Timothy R. Schmidt, 44, a software developer who felt stuck at his old company, Cray Research, a maker of expensive supercomputers that has downsized. "My experience has been eclipsed by new technologies."
But on one recent Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Schmidt received a job tip from a friend. By Thursday, he had an offer for a job with better pay and more opportunity from Platinum Technologies' fast-growing Viatech Laboratories unit, a computer software company based in Eagan, a southern suburb near the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.
Age was no barrier to Michael Mackany, either: At 57, he changed industries. After nearly 30 years in the sales and marketing of medical products, he is peddling the financial services of American Express Financial Advisors from Eden Prairie, a suburb 15 miles southwest of downtown.
American Express, which did not care about his relative financial naivete, expects him to make $75,000 his first year and more later.
"He had drive," said John Greiber, the vice president for recruiting, who expects to add 40 new financial planners this year. "We teach them how to be advisers."
Mr. Mackany heard about the opening from a friend. "My feeling," he said, "is that if you want a job here, you can find one."
Yet "Boomtown U.S.A. in 1996 is not Minneapolis," said Ken Goldstein, an economist at the Conference Board, a business research group in New York. "That would be Boise, or Salt Lake City or Las Vegas," where high technology, services and gambling businesses are bubbling over in the number of available new jobs.
In a crucial sense, Mr. Zandi said, Minneapolis is a template hinting at the nation's future. As the economy moves further away from jobs in heavy manufacturing and toward service and knowledge industries, Minneapolis is one step ahead.
That bodes well for the country, because the 13-county area ended 1995 with 2.9 percent more jobs than it had a year earlier -- slightly ahead of the national job growth rate of 2.7 percent. And 55 percent of the jobs created in the Minneapolis area in 1995 paid more than the area's average wage of $31,210, compared with 29 percent in 1992.
Set in rich farmland studded with glacial lakes, Minneapolis-St. Paul may be best known for ferocious winters. But the area has also contributed Scotch tape, Betty Crocker, the Mall of America, Roller Blades and a host of other business phenomena to the commonweal.
Its population, now 2.7 million, is growing by 1.3 percent a year. On the plus side of its economic ledger, it has a diversified economic base, an educated work force and a position as a financial, transportation and distribution hub for the upper Midwest. On the minus side, it saddles businesses with high taxes, labor rates and energy costs.
The Twin Cities area has seen its share of downsizings by the likes of Ceridian and Honeywell. Even Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, hallowed for its innovative culture, has cut staff.
But in the sparkling downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul and in the affluent suburban centers of Edina, Bloomington and the like, unemployment is low. Since 1994, the jobless rate has hovered around 3 percent. Minority groups make up less than 10 percent of the population here, versus nearly a quarter of the national populace, and many of the area's blacks, native Americans and other ethnic groups are partaking of the bounty, too, some people said.
"Minority folks with fairly good skills would be in demand for well-paying jobs," said Warren McLean, executive director of the Metropolitan Economic Development Association, a business-supported group that provides managerial assistance to minority-owned companies.
They are actively sought out by some companies. "Until two months ago, I had an all-white, all-male work force," complained David D. Wickhem, a manager at Mr. Mattakat's employer, Interprise Networking Services. Constantly in need of about 20 people who can earn anywhere from $40,000 to $85,000 in salary, plus a bonus, Mr. Wickhem has taken to attending meetings of black and Hispanic engineering groups. He recently hired a woman and a black man.
Technology skills may be most in demand at the moment. But good jobs are plentiful, too, in business services, health care, financial services and construction companies. On Sundays, in the hefty help-wanted section of The Minneapolis Star Tribune, job seekers can find everything from four-line ads for plumbers, at starting salaries of $16 to $20 an hour, to display ads starring the Pillsbury doughboy in an appeal for entry-level production workers at salaries of $18,285 to $28,270 a year.
Sometimes jobs even find workers. Kraig N. Hollingsworth, unemployed but equipped with a new certificate in accounting from a vocational school, was walking down Nicollet Mall downtown in March when opportunity stopped him in his tracks. Bruegger's Bagels had a "help wanted" sign in its window.
Mr. Hollingsworth, feeling not quite ready for the white-collar world, had worked in a bakery before. So when Bruegger's offered him a position as a morning baker, "I snapped it up," he said. "I said I was looking to get into accounting down the road, and my supervisor said that's a possibility."
Probably a good one. Mr. Hollingsworth, who is 30, has already had a 25-cent raise, to $7.50 an hour, and he is learning to run the registers and make bank deposits. By this time next year, he hopes to ease into an accounting job, where the salaries range from $20,000 to $30,000 and more. He would also get health benefits, for which hourly employees must pay extra.
No such job is open now, but in the last year Bruegger's local accounting department has grown from one part-time to three full-time positions. It will undoubtedly increase, given Bruegger's plans to open five stores, with 300 new jobs, in the area by year-end, plus many more by 1998. In the meantime, Mr. Hollingsworth is happy making "a livable wage," he said.
"I'm not scrambling," he added, "and it's a pleasant working environment."
Sarita Wood, also 30, found a job with even more ease. A software developer with a degree in computer science and mathematics, she started looking because her old employer, Cray Research, was shrinking. "It was emotionally tough" to watch, she said. "You learn to keep your options open."
After she went to a Platinum job fair, Viatech offered her a post. She said no.
"I told them what I was interested in, and they came back and made me an offer," she said. "It feels wonderful that they've created a job for me."
Ms. Wood, single with "a dog, a cat and a mortgage," said she took the job because of "its growth opportunities." But her new salary, which exceeds $50,000, also came with an 8 percent raise.
"My mother and father would be surprised that I am making this much money," she mused. Her father, she added, would "probably ask, 'what are you spending all that on?' "
To Viatech, Ms. Wood is well worth her salary -- and benefits. It is one of many small companies that now match health and pension benefits of big rivals.
It has to. Since March 1995, Viatech has gone from 6 employees to 27. The total would be higher if Richard Westgard, the development manager, could find more qualified people.
"A college grad with a year's experience gets $35,000," he said. "We'd pay $80,000 for, say, an ex-I.B.M. or Oracle developer with several years of solid experience, a bulletproof background with no gaps."
But such highly credentialed people are not the only ones who are getting good jobs, especially if they know technology. Jeffrey S. Pelkey, a 39-year-old former truck driver, has a new job as Viatech's systems administrator, thanks to two collisions.
The first took place in the early 1980's. Laid up after an accident, Mr. Pelkey was urged by his supervisor to learn more about computers so he could work at home and not need workers' compensation. By reading and taking courses at the Control Data Institute, Mr. Pelkey turned himself into a systems administrator.
The second clash occurred recently, when he and a boss at his old job at a hospital "didn't hit it off," Mr. Pelkey said. There, he was earning $36,000. But, with a family that includes three teen-aged children eyeing college, he started looking for a new job in January. He set his sights on a salary in the high $40,000's to low $50,000's.
"With my skills and experience, that wasn't hard at all," Mr. Pelkey said. He turned down one offer in San Antonio, in favor of Viatech, where he is making $51,000. One month into it, Mr. Pelkey was enamored of his new employer.
"There's variety -- you never know what you're going to do," he said. "The hospital was very political and everyone walked on eggshells. Here you see people walking around barefoot."
"I feel fortunate that I'm in demand," he added. "I crashed into this, or it crashed into me."
A Foot in the Door Leads Up the Ladder
Knowledge of another kind -- a love of books, really -- got Cindi Dean her new job, and made her a job creator.
Ms. Dean, who is 32, was recently named the manager of a brand-new Barnes & Noble bookstore just north of Minneapolis. She came from a nearby branch, where she had been assistant manager and then store manager. Her new store occupies a big chunk of the Northcourt Commons strip mall.
On this sunny Saturday morning, Ms. Dean is at a cash register, solving the problem of a young man in jeans and Reeboks. She could probably be in her office, back behind the biographies, the cookbooks, the novels. But making sure customers are satisfied is part of what makes the job a good one economically, because a portion of her pay is based on store volume.
Ms. Dean will not disclose her salary, but industry experts suggest it would be at least $40,000 and may well range into the $50,000's and perhaps beyond. To maximize it, she wants to make sure all the kinks have been worked out in the systems and with the 42 people she hired.
They are a mixed bunch: half full time, half part time. They come from all races, many directly out of high school and others with college degrees. Barnes & Noble will not say how much the pay is, except that it exceeds the minimum wage. Those who work more than 30 hours a week, on average, are entitled to health, pension and vacation benefits. "We've found we need to have good benefits to be competitive in today's job marketplace," said Michael J. Hejny, Barnes & Noble's Midwest director.
Hiring was not hard. "You have to find the right people," Ms. Dean said, "but there are always people who want to work in bookstores."
Part of the draw, according to Mr. Hejny, is that "two-thirds of the jobs in our company are entry-level, and people go on to other things. We're growing so fast that there are lots of opportunities. Booksellers become supervisory staff, who become assistant managers and then store managers."
Since Barnes & Noble moved into the Minneapolis market in 1990, it has opened 11 superstores, with 300 to 500 new jobs. "We'll probably open a few more in the next few years," Mr. Hejny added.
The new jobs are even more plentiful and varied across town, at the United Healthcare Corporation, the nation's largest health insurer. In the lobby of its office in Edina, seven miles southwest of downtown, sits a 3.5 inch-thick loose-leaf binder of opportunities: customer service representatives, secretaries and nurses as well as the ubiquitous software developers. Starting salaries range from $10,350 to $65,350.
Management jobs pay much higher. Last year, Tom L. Anderson got one of them, recruited by a search firm to become United Healthcare's vice president for Medicare programs. His salary, industry experts said, is at least $250,000 plus a bonus and stock options.
Technically, Mr. Anderson's job is not new. Someone else had the title before. But "the company wasn't committed to it, and the Medicare product went nowhere," Mr. Anderson said. Now the company, which is also a big provider of managed care, wants growth in this area, and it is hiring as that happens.
So Mr. Anderson does much less administering and much more redesigning and marketing of Medicare management. When he joined the company, it managed six Medicare programs for local governments; now it handles 15. "And we have 22 more in the works," he said.
In the process, Mr. Anderson's staff has jumped from 4 to 14. Additional positions are being filled in the cities where the company has sold its services. Base salary ranges from $50,000 to $140,000, plus bonus, options, health care and pension benefits.
"The jobs haven't been open long," he said. "I don't like ads or recruiters, so it's mostly word of mouth."
Health care is growing so fast that industry experience is not necessary; many new employees come from banking, life insurance, retailing and government work.
Mr. Anderson, who is 49, made a big leap into the industry. In the mid-1980's, he had made enough money as a manager at Pepsi and Denny's to retire. Then he got married, and his wife wanted him to work.
"I wanted to do something meaningful," he said. With his mother having health problems, "I went through the Yellow Pages, looking at health maintenance organizations," he said.
"And I did cold calls," Mr. Anderson said, armed with his work record, an undergraduate degree in political science and an M.B.A. from Pepperdine University. "The first interview I had was with FHP International, and they hired me."
He stayed there until United Healthcare called.
The Tribulations of Life On the Ground Floor
For all the bustle, some people are not finding the job market quite so hospitable. Since Dallas Crow graduated from college in 1988 with an English degree, he has toiled in a half dozen bookstores, at a publisher and in graduate school for a year. "I've freelanced, and I've temped, too," he said.
In January, with his wife pregnant, he started sending out resumes. By June, when Hungry Mind Press -- a year-old small press in St. Paul -- hired Mr. Crow as marketing director half-time, he had just one other offer, in book wholesaling.
He took the Hungry Mind job because he knew one its founders, and they promised that his job would become full time next January. In the meantime, he is working in the nearby Hungry Mind bookstore 20 hours a week.
"I'd rather not work two jobs," he said. "But I saw this as a chance to get in on the ground floor of something and to make a difference."
He refused to say what he was paid. "People in New York would sneer," he explained.
Mary Dupont, who has a master's degree in English and is the only full-time employee of Hungry Mind Press, makes $19,000, with no benefits. But she is much happier with her job choice, despite earlier ambitions to teach at the college level.
"That's hard to get without a Ph.D.," she said, "And this is a great job. The company is designed to be nonhierarchical, it's the perfect alternative to being in a cube."
She manages virtually everything for the five owners who make the editorial decisions.
Ms. Dupont believes she could have found a higher-paying post in a bank or ad agency. "If I weren't married, I might think twice about this," she said, noting that her husband's salary from an advertising agency would be enough for a comfortable life even after they have a baby, due in December.
But right now, she said, sitting on a porch outside Hungry Mind's office, "this is how I want to spend my day."
"I don't feel a great desire to be part of the big financial and business complex," she added. "Most of the areas where you can make more money just don't interest me."
The Common Thread In the Career Quilt
Ms. Dupont echoed a common theme. While money is clearly important, what employees do all day weighs heavily on their minds, too. If corporate downsizing has taught them one thing, it is that they are responsible for their own careers. Today, personal growth and opportunity frequently matter more than immediate pay.
Vincent K. Hass, an assistant store manager at Bruegger's Bagels, even took a $2,000 pay cut when he jumped from a job as a Wendy's general manager in March. Mr. Hass, who is 34, prefers the management style at Bruegger's and believes his opportunities are greater.
And Mr. Mackany, the new financial adviser who had spent his entire career at 3M and retired early only because he had witnessed three rounds of downsizing, was not satisfied taking life easy. He grew bored consulting part time, and though he knew little about investments, he was eager to learn to provide for his own future and that of his teen-age daughter. Now, dressed in a snappy blue suit, Mr. Mackany is primed to do business again, almost bubbling when he said, "I'm really excited about this."
"3M was the only company I ever worked for," he continued, "and I still think it's a great company. I could have stayed. I have no bitterness, and I understand the competitive environment. I felt I wanted an opportunity to grow. At 3M, it would have been all sidestepping."
Photos of Kevin Mattakat, Sarita Wood, Michael Mackany, and JeffreyPelkey. (Photographs by Steve Woit for The New York Times) (pg. 1) Chart: "The Fastest-Growing Sectors" Business services Recreation Nonbanking financial institutions Social services Brokerage services (pg. 1) Graph: "Up the Job Escalator" shows breakdowns of the new jobs in the United States, by pay, during 1992, 1993, 1994, and 1995. (Sources: Regional Financial Associates; Bureau of Labor Statistics; Bureau of Economic Analysis) (pg. 1) Tables: "Winners and Losers, Industry by Industry" More and more, Americans are serving each other. There has been a net increase of roughly 11 million jobs since the recession ended in early 1991, and almost all of the new ones are in industries that provide one kind of service or another. The fastest growth took place in business services, a catch-all category that includes everything from accountants and data processers to janitors and temporary workers; leisure services, from blackjack dealers to amusement park operators, and social services. The industries that lost jobs at the greatest rate include clothing and textile manufacturing, oil and gas extraction and coal mining. Some fast-growing industries pay extraordinarily well: annual earnings at brokerage firms average more than $96,000. But some of the biggest gainers pay well below average: many providers of social welfare services work for nonprofit agencies and earn little more than those they try to help. All in all, the gap has widened between those at the top of the job ladder and those at the bottom. Researchers have found that the largest gains in job growth in recent years took place in the highest-paying job categories; relatively low-paying industries and occupations have also grown, but at a slower pace. Employment has actually shrunk among job categories in the middle range. Table ranks industries by how quickly they added or lost jobs from the first quarter of 1991 to the first quarter of 1996. Shown are the top 25 and the bottom 25. (Sources: Regional Financial Associates; Bureau of Labor Statistics) (pg. 10) "Where the Jobs Are, or Aren't" Job growth in the 1990's has been distributed unevenly across America. It is no surprise that many jobs were created in metropolitan areas of the Sun Belt, like Atlanta, Phoenix and Dallas. But several big cities that were once dismissed as lost causes, including Boston and Detroit, have actually added jobs since the recession ended in early 1991. The cities with the fastest job growth are concentrated in the West. Places like Austin, Tex.; Boise, Idaho, and Las Vegas -- which initially benefited from the job exodus from California -- have taken on a life of their own as magnets for high-technology businesses, leisure and recreation industries and business services. Among the nation's roughly 250 major metropolitan areas, only a dozen had no gain in jobs from the end of the recession to the first quarter of 1996. Except for Honolulu, all of those areas are in California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut or Pennsylvania. Table ranks metropolitan areas by the number of jobs gained or lost, and by the growth from 1991 to 1996. (Sources: Regional Financial Associates; Bureau of Labor Statistics) (pg. 10)