So it may come as a surprise to learn that Fleet-based recruitment company Alexander Francis, which specialises in IT and telecoms, looks set for its most successful year yet.

The picture though, according to the company’s sales director Shelley Gorys, is far from straightforward.

“The market is stranger than I have ever known it at the moment, and I really don’t know what is going to happen in the future,” she said.

The answer to that question could have a major impact on the local economy. Telecoms and IT are vital to the economic growth of this area. Many big companies have made huge investments locally creating thousands of well-paid highly skilled jobs.

NTL and Sun Microsystems have their main UK headquarters at Hook and Farnborough respectively, and there are huge offices for mobile phone giants Nokia in Southwood and Camberley, while US computer giant CSC will soon be opening its newly built UK headquarters in Aldershot.

But the global problems in IT have already hit local companies. NTL has a crippling debt it needs to manage to stave off more job cuts, and Sun has put phase two of its headquarters building on hold indefinitely.

Mrs Gorys, who started the company with her husband Stephen in 1986, fears that the technology market may never reach its former peak and is having to find a new level. She sensed there were serious problems even before September 11.

“Around August time we started to feel things were not quite right with telecoms. It was a gut instinct, but we thought the market was going to improve in the first week of September.

“Clearly September 11 changed everything, especially with the telecoms and IT markets.”

She believes the attack on the World Trade Center was a catalyst for an underlying problem.

“The big companies had networks that, for the previous ten years, they had designed, planned, built and upgraded, and, basically, this country, Europe and America had become saturated with networks.

“We had a situation where the banks had loaned all the money to set up these networks and the money was not forthcoming. The market just went overnight.

“Many, many hundreds of contract workers were let go and that has a big knock-on effect on recruitment agencies. I know of one company in the local vicinity that laid off 40 contractors in one day alone last year.

“When we had the late 1989 to 1991 recession, that seriously hit the IT market. But there was still something happening — there were still jobs out there. Now the whole picture is really weird.”

Despite this backdrop, Mrs Gorys projects profits at Alexander Francis, which employs ten people at its St James Road offices, could rise between six and eight per cent on last year.

Since Mr and Mrs Gorys set up the business from their home 15 years ago it has grown in all but two years. A recent independent report rated the company 17th in its field worldwide in terms of sales per employee.

Mrs Gorys believes two factors have kept Alexander Francis on track over the past few months. Firstly, in lean times, client companies are most likely to stick with tried and trusted recruitment agencies to help them find the right employees.

Secondly, Mrs Gorys said there were still some specialist fields within telecoms and IT that were expanding.

“There are certain skill sets for which telecoms companies are always complaining there are shortages.

“Voice and data specialists who are supporting the existing networks are still being snapped up. Most of them know their worth and consequently earn lots of money.”

“Having said that, we have set ourselves tough targets for next year if we are to do well, because who knows what’s going to happen.”

Pictured are Shelley and Stephen Gorys.