If you’ve been thinking about changing jobs in the retail real estate industry, it may be time to dust off that resume.

During the depths of the recession, many retail real estate firms downsized, with particularly heavy tolls on project management, development and construction departments. Just about the only professionals that were in demand were distress specialists.

Today, however, many commercial real estate firms are hiring again. Tepid improvement began in 2010 and real estate recruiting specialists say that the number of openings is up slightly in 2011.

With retail real estate market fundamentals improving, many firms are evaluating existing staff levels to see where it makes sense to increase head count, says Jennifer Millman, president of Millman Recruiting Services LLC, a Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.-based recruiting firm specializing in commercial and retail real estate. “There has definitely been a big surge in hiring in 2011,” she notes.

For example, Jones Lang LaSalle Retail, an Atlanta-based third party property manager, hired 233 people in 2010 after adding almost no one in both 2008 and 2009, says CEO Greg Maloney. The hires included property managers, marketing managers, operations specialists and accounting personnel.

For its part, Colliers International hired about 40 professionals in 2010 after adding no more than four or five people to its retail team in 2009, according to Dylan Taylor, the firm’s U.S. CEO. In 2011, he expects the figure to be higher.

“I think there is more optimism out there and that’s a big factor. Good news feeds on itself,” says Jerry Lindeen, president of National Real Estate Recruiting, an executive search firm.

Growth areas

Most of the job growth so far has been in property management, corporate services, investment sales brokerage and, to some extent, leasing.

For example, as more retailers outsource real estate needs to professional firms, corporate services groups at national firms have added staff, says Anthony F. Buono, executive managing director with CB Richard Ellis, who heads up CBRE’s retail services for the Americas.

Colliers International has been looking for asset managers and retail investment sales brokers. The firm is also in the market for an executive level business development professional who could help grow Colliers’ market share in the retail space, Taylor notes.

Firms that are hiring are also paying particular attention to parts of the business that help drive revenue growth, like leasing, notes Millman.

Some doubts

Buono argues, however, that in some cases, like hiring in leasing departments, any increased activity is not the result of firms adding positions, but stems from professionals jumping from one firm to another in a game of musical chairs. “There is not a lot of net new hiring [of leasing professionals] in my view,” Buono notes.

Meanwhile, new development and construction jobs are virtually nonexistent. Most mall and shopping center developers have been concentrating on redevelopment and renovation, or on completing projects put on hold during the recession, says Taylor. As a result, there is little need for new blood.

In addition, the number of applicants available for each available opening remains very high, says Millman. A mid-level position in the retail real estate sector can generate anywhere from 30 to 50 applications. For example, when Colliers International put out word that it was looking for a business development executive, the firm received more than 100 resumes, according to Taylor.

Today’s job market has been particularly hard to navigate for mid-level professionals because they are competing with experienced senior level people who found themselves unemployed during the downturn.

If the list is narrowed down to people who fit every qualification, there are still about 10 applicants to choose from, Millman notes. Taylor adds that qualified candidates for certain positions—for example, an investment sales broker in a New York or Washington, D.C. market—are still hard to come by.

The pickings are so good that when Jones Lang LaSalle Retail needs to hire a general manager or a marketing manager, it doesn’t employ the services of a head hunter any longer, according to Maloney. Word of mouth is enough to generate applicants.

“Every person in the industry right now is replaceable,” says Millman. “Companies can hire anyone they want.”

As a result, she estimates that average salaries for retail real estate professionals have dropped about 20 percent from where they were at the peak of the market. Even people who have kept their jobs through the downturn have, in many cases, been forced to agree to pay cuts of up to 15 percent to avoid layoffs. Those pay cuts will remain in place for the foreseeable future, Millman notes.