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TAKE MIDDLE MANAGERS OFF THE ENDANGERED LIST

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Labeling middle managers as an endangered species was a bit premature.

It seems that when middle managers have the right skills, the woods are filled with companies eager to take over their care and feeding.Even as Fortune 500 companies continue to snuff out the careers of tens of thousands of white-collar bureaucrats, executive search firms around the United States are busier than they've been in years.

And most of their clients are companies looking for - can it be? - managers for the middle and top echelons of corporate command.

Depending upon your point of view, the trend is either a heartening vote of confidence in the U.S. economy or backsliding by executives seizing a chance to repopulate their corporate fiefdoms. Both interpretations probably contain some truth.

In most economic downturns, companies throw people over the side to curb costs. In most economic upturns, the victims are rehired or their jobs are restored and taken by someone else.

In the 1990s, that cycle was supposed to have been broken. In the race with international competition, nobody could afford to get fat.

The fat days may be gone forever. Nevertheless, many companies have decided they've become too lean, especially as profits pick up and prospects brighten.

"Some people thought you could run 15 divisions watching your PC on your credenza . . ." said Allan Raymond, managing vice president of the Minneapolis office of Korn/Ferry International, an executive headhunting firm. "It may be they believe it less today."

Don Hykes, managing director of A.T. Kearney Executive Search in Bloomington, Minn., said there is a palpable mood swing in the executive suite.

"There is a level of optimism that it's time to fill key jobs that have not been filled for a long time where many people were doing double duty," Hykes said.

U.S. Labor Department figures underpin the impression that the obituaries on middle management were hasty. In 1993 some 600,000 managerial jobs were created - or about the same number of people hired for new jobs as laborers and workers on factory floors.

In other words, last year corporate America hired nearly as many people to manage people and information as it did to actually make things.

A managers' comeback is under way in other parts of the world as well. Industrial centers from Europe to Asia increased executive hiring 16 percent in 1993, the largest gain in nine years, according to Korn/Ferry's latest survey of 1,200 corporate customers around the globe.

To be sure, those figures represent only the clients of one headhunting firm, but they are startling considering that most of the industrial world - apart from the United States and England - is mired in recession.

Yet corporate headhunters warn against rushing to any conclusions that the ranks of managers at companies large and small soon will be bloated.

"We're talking subtle shades of gray here, not black and white," said Raymond at Korn/Ferry.

Banks, financial service, telecommunication and food companies are leading the wave in manager recruitment, but their hiring is confined to experienced hands in marketing, financial or other specialties and not a sheet-to-the-wind payroll spending binge.

In fact, some of the hiring is aimed at trimming costs.

Hykes has a Minnesota client who is creating a job for a senior manager whose mission will be to reduce the price of materials by overseeing purchases from suppliers around the globe.

Of course, shakeups also keep executive recruiters busy, as companies look for fresh blood to replace the chief executives or chief financial officers they have shoved out the door.

"In times of business difficulties, the first person you blame is the guy running the place," Raymond said.

If history is any guide, whoever gets the job of running the place probably will crave job security. What better way to start than hiring a new assistant or two?