Best Places To Work 2010

Here are 20 employers large and small where the working stiffs are loving it.

Under Armour –Photo by Bryan Burris

If you spent 2009 hunkered down in your cubicle, hoping to avoid the HR manager's pink slips, you weren't alone. Forget the foosball table, the sweet view, and the free cola, it was a year to be thankful just to have the pleasure of pulling in a paycheck.

Fortunately, even in the worst of times, the smartest employers recognize that to attract and retain the very best, they've got to pony up for more than just the basics. And the good news is that, after a rocky year or two, many of those companies now seem positioned to grow, which means more opportunity for you, those ambitious employees-to-be they so covet.

As part of our regular efforts to bring you the skinny on who's best, we rounded up 20 first-rate employers. They offer great benefits, competitive pay, family-friendly policies, a commitment to professional development, inspiring leadership, great digs, or all of the above. And, you guessed it, they're all hiring. So, whether you're just curious or actively seeking a new place to park your patootie from 9 to 5, read on to learn what these stellar employers have to offer.

Ascend One

Employees: 735 total; 455 in Maryland. Who they are: A privately held family of businesses—including CareOne Services, Amerix and 3CI—that help consumers get out of debt and manage their finances. What we love: A virtual work option that lets employees work from anywhere. Best benefits: Formal mentoring, tuition assistance of up to $5,000 per year, adoption assistance, up to four weeks' vacation in the first year of employment.

Getting from her Baltimore County home to Ascend One's Columbia offices used to be a one-hour haul for Raenice Bains, a quality specialist who has been with Ascend One for seven years. Evenings were worse. The commute to her Coppin State college classes often meant crawling bumper to bumper for more than an hour and a half.

"It was awful," says Bains, 33. "Stressful mornings, stressful evenings, no time to study."

But these days, it takes her about 30 seconds to get to work: That's because Bains is part of Ascend One's vast virtual workforce, and her commute takes her no farther than the second floor, to a home office that once was a den. There she logs on to the company's network and monitors the calls of Ascend One's customer service representatives, 80 percent of whom also work from home.

To stay in touch with workmates, she uses the company's newly updated intranet, The Vibe, and only occasionally visits the office.

"It's been a great experience," says Bains, who has been working from home for about two years. "It helps me to be more involved in my school work and gives me time to study."

And while the super-short commute may be the biggest bonus, Bains also credits telecommuting with allowing her to pitch in more for her parents, with whom she shares a home, especially her father. "My father's been sick, so working from home has helped me to help him," she says.

And Ascend One's tuition reimbursement program has been icing on the cake for Bains: It's paying for part of her schooling and gives her one more reason to love her job. "I wouldn't trade it for the world," she says.

CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield

Location: Canton, Owings Mills, and other locations regionally. Employees: 5,250 total; 2,891 in the Baltimore area. Who they are: A not-for-profit health insurer. What we love: Solid benefits, family-friendly policies. Best benefits: Six weeks paid maternity leave, on-site fitness center, tuition assistance up to $4,000, flexible work arrangements, on-site dining, bank, and dry cleaners.

If you're looking for an example of how CareFirst helps its employees move up the ladder, you need look no farther than Julie Fisher, who started working for the organization nearly 25 years ago as a claims examiner.

"I was actually collecting unemployment and had just gotten out of the army," says Fisher, who today is senior director of service and operations technical support. "It's such a big company with so much opportunity." It helped, too, that Fisher's immediate bosses focused heavily on development and often acted as mentors, both formally and informally.

In fact, their mere presence was inspirational. "I would see different women here in the company being very successful and progressing and being valued," says Fisher. "There are a number of females in significant roles here and they are very accessible."

In fact, 62 percent of CareFirst's management team is female. And the organization has long had family-friendly policies in place—like flexible scheduling. "I've always had management that was very flexible," says Fisher, who had four children while working at CareFirst and at times had to take advantage of that flexibility. "In turn, I've made it a practice to ensure that that flexibility was there as well" for other employees.

And now that her children are in college, Fisher is equally grateful for the company's benefits, including its retirement and savings plans. "Their benefits overall here are very, very rich," she says.

CollabraSpace

Location: Annapolis. Employees: 41. Who they are: A privately held provider of web-based collaboration solutions. What we love: 100 percent employer-paid health insurance and four-week paid sabbatical after five years of service. Best benefits: Equity awards for all employees if company meets goals, bonus plan and profit sharing, 100 percent of health and dental insurance paid for employee and family, tuition assistance.

The moment Leah Burman learned that her good friend, Ramsay Key, was moving to the Baltimore area, she knew she had a mission: to recruit Key to work with her at Annapolis tech company CollabraSpace.

Burman thought Key would be a solid addition to her team, but she also knew he'd enjoy working in an environment that manages to mix the high energy and creativity of a startup with the pay and stability of an established company. In her own five years there, Burman had found CollabraSpace to be both rewarding and flexible and "still small enough to be able to really listen to what we need."

That fact was evident shortly after Burman joined, when she and others suggested instituting a policy to award a four-week paid sabbatical to all employees who reach the five-year mark. "I threw that out there and they said, "Okay, we're gonna do it," she recalls. In the coming year, she'll have a chance to take advantage of the policy, which is offered in addition to an employee's regular paid time off and can be cashed in if it's not used. And Key likely will get his chance, too. It took two years, but in 2009, Key was one of 12 new hires at CollabraSpace, half of which were referred by friends.

Euler Hermes ACI

Location: Owings Mills. Employees: 6,000 globally; 200 in Baltimore. Who they are: A trade credit insurer and accounts receivable management solutions provider. What we love: Stability, good benefits, long tenures, lots of opportunity to grow internationally. Best benefits: Annual bonuses that range from 10 percent to 30 percent of salary, tuition reimbursement of up to $6,000 per year, referral compensation program that pays out $7,000 for qualified applicant referrals, $50 per month to offset the cost of public transportation, $500 annually for employees who drive fuel-efficient cars, and $250 to employees who buy a fuel-efficient car.

When Peruvian Linda May walks the halls of the Owings Mills trade credit insurer and hears her coworkers speaking Russian, or Chinese, or Spanish, it's music to her ears. "I love it," says May. "It's a very global company."

So global, in fact, that when May suggested last October that the company host an international lunch—a sort of cultural exchange through food—she was overwhelmed by the response. In the end, the lunchtime event drew employees from across the globe who shared about 30 dishes from their native cuisines.

"Someone from Chile brought meat empanadas, and we had pork roast and German pasta, estofado de pollo, arapes, and gulab jamun from India—they were delicious," says May, rattling off the list of dishes. Even Pennsylvania and Louisiana got their due—with shoofly pie and jambalaya, of course.

The international flavor works in other ways, too, says Euler Hermes employee Chris Starr, who in April is moving from Baltimore to a new position in Paris. "For people who want to go [overseas] there's a lot of opportunity. It's really exciting."

Integral Components

Location: Westminster. Employees: 60. Who they are: A family run contract manufacturer of cable and electro-mechanical assemblies. What we love:Management that really cares about employees. Best benefits: Company pays 100 percent of health, dental, and vision premiums, deductibles, and copays.

Bill Keiser doesn't seem the type to brag. But as he winds his way through the assembly floor of the Westminster company he founded and points out the company's finer features, there's more than a little pride in his voice. "It's a heated floor," Keiser says. "That was the number one complaint about the old building."

Carpet is a no-no in his business because of the nature of the work, so Keiser had the floor heated, installed multiple heating-control panels throughout the room, and even climate-controlled the warehouse. On the assembly floor, he took a detour from the typical assembly line and gave every employee a desk, with drawers. Outside, he built a deck with a grill for employees to use. And Keiser gives every hourly employee a one-hour paid lunch break, even if they don't use it.

It's all part of his philosophy to treat employees "like they're part of the family," says Keiser. When employees need money—for cars, or houses, or school—Keiser has been known to step in with interest-free loans. "Most times, we get paid back," he says with a grin that tells you he considers it worth the risk.

When the company has a good year, as it did in 2009 when it added several new accounts, Keiser spreads the wealth. At year end, he divided $365,000, as well as trips and prizes, among the 55 non-family employees. It's the kind of treatment that doesn't go unnoticed: Employees tend to stay. And they tend to return the love.

"Our boss really cares about us," says Frances Burke, a cable assembler who was the tenth employee hired and has no plans of leaving. "He makes sure that if we want anything, we get it."

The Johns Hopkins Hospital

Location: East Baltimore and other locations. Employees: 10,000. Who they are: Health care provider. What we love: Prestige, solid benefits. Best benefits: Employer-funded pension plan, tuition reimbursement of up to $10,000 per year, half the cost of undergraduate tuition at any college paid for the children of employees, adoption assistance of $5,000 per child.

If you're looking for an impress-your-friends place of employment, Johns Hopkins clearly rates. The hospital has been named by U.S. News & World Report as the nation's best for 19 years in a row, which no doubt helps to attract patients and employees alike.

Plus, its close location to, and affiliation with, The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine (which has been the top recipient of NIH research funding for 16 years), the school of public health, and the nursing school also make the campus an intellectual hotspot that offers up a diverse array of opportunities.

"It's such a large, diverse hospital, and there are just so many different fields you can go into," says nurse researcher Linda Costa, who, in addition to conducting research for the hospital, also teaches at the school of nursing. "You don't have to leave the hospital to do something different." Just three years into her job, Costa knows she's relatively new compared to her peers, who "seem to stay for a long time," she says. "It's a great work environment."

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

Location: Laurel. Employees: 4,800. Who they are: A not-for-profit engineering, research, and development organization. What we love: Cool line of work, big-company benefits. Best benefits: Tuition reimbursement for up to 18 credits per year for full-time employees, dependent scholarships worth 50 percent of annual tuition for four years.

In a low-key mission operations room on the nearly 400-acre campus of JHU's Applied Physics Lab, a team of engineers sits quietly at a small bank of computers. Their job: to guide two unmanned aircraft toward their destinations. One is bound for Mercury, the other for Pluto. With a few strokes of the keyboard, the mission controllers can check in with the craft or make adjustments to its course. Pretty cool, even for those who've been here a while. Or, as Pluto mission operations manager Alice Bowman says, "We do it every day and it's still amazing to us."

The missions are just two of the many underway—APL has 600 projects going on at the moment—in biomedicine, undersea warfare, homeland security, and other fields. And if you're not a physicist, don't despair. Despite the name, the company hires mostly engineers and actually has a wide variety of positions, including those associated with the multitude of services on campus, which range from a contracted cafeteria service to a credit union, a post office, and even a fire department.

Best of all, since its work is done for the U.S. government, APL manages to maintain relative stability, even through economic downturns, which means there's never a bad time to put in an application.

LifeBridge Health

Location: Various. Employees: 7,028. Who they are: LifeBridge Health consists of Sinai Hospital of Baltimore, Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital, LifeBridge Health and Fitness, Courtland Gardens Nursing and Rehab Center, and affiliated units. What we love: A commitment to helping employees grow, good benefits. Best benefits: Employee pension plan, tuition assistance program worth up to $5,000 per year, adoption assistance, participates in Live Near Your Work program.

When LifeBridge says it cares about your career, you can rest assured that they mean it—at all levels of the organization. LifeBridge, for example, has a formal leadership development program for all managers and supervisors, and all 20-hour-plus employees are eligible to take part in a tuition assistance program.

For those who aren't ready for college, LifeBridge's skills enhancement program provides college prep classes, courses in math and reading, help earning a GED or high school diploma, or courses in computer skills and medical terminology. There is a full-time workforce development coordinator who steps in with guidance for employees seeking to develop themselves professionally and one-on-one career coaching.

Employees accepted into some hospital-sponsored training programs get paid for time away from their job to complete training, and LifeBridge has even arranged for special tuition rates at certain schools. Plus, there are programs to offer financial assistance to nursing students who want to pursue a career in nursing at LifeBridge facilities.

Lockheed Martin

Location: Bethesda (with operations in Baltimore and elsewhere). Employees: 140,000 worldwide; more than 1,800 in Baltimore. Who they are: The Middle River operation focuses on vertical launching systems and ship building for the military. What we love: Commitment to diversity, plus big-company benefits and opportunities. Best benefits: On-site fitness centers and gym discounts, tuition assistance, flexible work arrangements.

As one of the largest corporate employers in the country, and the largest employer of entry-level engineers and scientists—annually the company hires about 5 percent of all engineering grads in the U.S.—Lockheed Martin clearly has an appetite for talent. But how does talent feel about Lockheed Martin? Pretty good, apparently. The company consistently wins kudos as a great place to work, especially among undergraduate engineering students.

So, what's the appeal? For one thing, Lockheed, whose culture has become more entrepreneurial in recent years, offers up rewarding challenges, even to new employees, says Harry Malecki, a senior mechanical engineer who graduated from college in 2006 and is in the third year of a leadership development program there.

"There's a lot of opportunity to do something that's cutting edge," says Malecki, who is part of a research and development team mostly comprised of young engineers. His team is three years into a project that is now making substantial progress. "But Lockheed had to have a lot of faith in us to think that we could get to this point," notes Malecki. "That says a lot."

Martek Biosciences

Location: Columbia. Employees: 585 worldwide; 170 in Baltimore. Who they are: Developer of nutritional products. What we love: Inclusive culture, feel-good line of work, growth potential. Best benefits: Equity compensation plan, annual cash bonus plan, free gym access, tuition assistance of up to $5,250.

It's 11:30 on a Monday morning, and commercial services manager Iesha Queen is sitting down to eat some bread. But she's not in the lunchroom, and she's not here because she's hungry. Instead, Iesha is seated at a computer in Martek's sensory lab, ready to put her taste buds to work. First, she'll nibble the control product, an ordinary chunk of white bread presented on a tray in a small plastic cup, then rinse her mouth and try another sample. After each test, she'll answer a few easy questions on a computerized form.

"The whole point is to see if you can tell the difference," says Queen, who volunteers weekly for sensory tests. Her responses help Martek—which makes DHA, a fatty acid that has been shown to improve brain health throughout life—ensure its product can be added to others without compromising the taste. For Queen, who is in sales, being part of sensory tests is just one way to be involved in product development.

For her effort, she gets a little payback in the form of gift cards and a chance to win bigger prizes. If she has a great product idea, she could pocket $10,000 through the company's quarterly innovation awards. It's all part of a culture that emphasizes inclusion and collaboration. But for Queen, there's one more big incentive: "Working for a company where I believe in the product," she says. "It makes me feel really good about coming to work."

Best of all, Martek has plenty of room for growth. The company recently announced plans to develop biofuels from algae and is pursuing other scientific applications for its products, as well.

McCormick & Company

Location: Headquartered in Sparks, various locations worldwide. Employees: 8,765 worldwide; 2,048 in Maryland. Who they are: Manufacturer of spices, herbs, seasonings, and flavors. What we love: Culture of caring for employees (and employees who care back). Best benefits: Employer-paid pension plan, stock purchase plan, employee dividend/annual bonus program, on-site health care facility, tuition assistance of up to 100 percent, scholarship program for employees' children, paid week off between Christmas and New Year's for most employees.

It's 8:35 on a Friday morning, and McCormick CEO Alan Wilson is standing before his second big group of employees of the day. In broad strokes, he outlines the financial quarter's challenges and accomplishments, then hands out employee awards and thanks this group, the financial shared-services division, for its hard work through an uneasy year. He's been through this drill six times in recent days—including at a 6 a.m. meeting on this day with distribution center employees—and will hit a total of about 13 such meetings in the coming week as part of the company's regular quarterly employee meetings.

"It's about recognizing the good work people are doing and communicating to them how the business is doing," Wilson says, standing just outside the dining room that's been converted to meeting space for today's gathering. "It's about keeping the whole family atmosphere."

That family atmosphere can be a tricky proposition for a global enterprise with nearly 9,000 employees, but it's one McCormick's workforce says the company has always managed to nail. How do they do it? Wilson says a big element is the company's culture—which emphasizes teamwork. But McCormick also delivers with strong benefits, flexible work arrangements, and family-friendly policies. And that wins loyalty. "There's the phrase, 'McCormick for life,'" says general ledger manager Ginny Coughlin. "People really stay here. And when I tell people I work at McCormick, they ask, 'Can you get me a job there?'"

MedStar Health

Location: Various. Employees: 26,000. Who they are: A nonprofit regional health care system with nine hospitals, including Good Samaritan Hospital, Harbor Hospital, Union Memorial Hospital, and Franklin Square Hospital Center. What we love: A commitment to professional development. Best benefits: MedStar hospital stays capped at $100 out of pocket, tuition assistance of up to $3,000 per year.

When Mary Cierkowski started working at Harbor Hospital 21 years ago as an executive secretary, she had no real plans for moving up the corporate ladder. And she certainly didn't imagine that 10 years later, with the help of MedStar, she'd be setting her sites set on a paralegal career, and taking real steps toward achieving it.

Eight years after joining the company, Cierkowski became a student, using MedStar's tuition reimbursement program to pay for studies toward an AA degree, and later earned paralegal certification. "I couldn't have done it if it weren't for them," says Cierkowski, who is now a legal department manager. She says the work she does today is "something I never dreamed I'd ever be capable of doing 20 years ago."

In addition to educational help, MedStar also offers robust career development programs, from career coaching to free training in basic skills and programs to help associates train for a career in nursing.

For Cierkowski, it all adds up to a great place to work. "People think I'm crazy because I always say I love coming to work," she says. "But I feel very valued. They are supportive of you in absolutely every way."

Other employees echo the sentiment. In its most recent biannual employee survey—which is handled by HR and financial consulting firm Watson Wyatt and boasts an impressive participation rate of 87 percent—MedStar's Baltimore hospitals surpassed 70 percent in employee satisfaction, a rating Watson Wyatt considers "world class."

Merkle

Location: Headquartered in Columbia. Employees: 1,100 nationwide; 450 at Maryland headquarters. Who they are: A marketing company. What we love:Nice building, "Dream Grants," big rewards. Best benefits: Tuition assistance of up to $7,500 per year, Dream Grants, up to $5,000 for employee referrals, flexible work arrangements.

When Merkle looks for employees, it seeks out seven core attributes: You've got to be smart, curious, have a sense of urgency, be committed to a vision, be passionate, be an achiever, and be fun. Sounds like a long list, but nail those traits and you'll fit in well here, where hard work is rewarded with ample opportunity to learn and achieve.

In fact, perpetual learning is a key part of the Merkle employee experience. Case in point: Merkle's Dream Grants, which let employees tackle a new experience—from climbing a mountain or surviving in the wilderness to mastering the art of dog sledding—and all on the company's dime.

Employees also pursue learning through the company's generous tuition-reimbursement program or by attending Merkle University, an in-house education and training program led by Chairman and CEO David Williams.

Of course, it's always nice to work in style, too. Merkle's shiny Columbia headquarters, completed in June 2008, boasts a cafe and coffee bar (with free fountain drinks, coffee, and espresso machines), casual lounges with plasma TVs, wireless Internet access, XM satellite radio, outdoor patios, a company store and pool, and foosball tables. For health nuts, there's an on-site gym and fitness classes.

And while Merkle laid off a few employees in early 2008 due to waning business in the financial services sector, the company has more than made up for it with growth in the pharmaceutical and retail sectors. Merkle expects to hire as many as 200 employees in the coming year.

M&T Bank

Location: Baltimore, plus locations nationally and locally. Employees: 14,480 total; 2,439 in greater Baltimore. Who they are: Provider of commercial and retail financial services. What we love: Good benefits, stability, culture of ownership. Best benefits: Employer-paid pension plan, employee stock purchase program (employees own about 20 percent of the company's stock), on-site fitness club, tuition reimbursement, flexible work schedules.

Sure, M&T's vision statement is a bit bold. After all, the bank says it strives to "be the best company our employees ever work for, the best bank our customers ever do business with, and the best investment our shareholders ever make." But ask Derrick Lawrence, a vice president of central operations who has worked his way up through the ranks, and he'll tell you M&T delivers. "They take the vision statement very, very seriously," says Lawrence. On the employee front, "at every level, you have access to a tremendous amount of training tools. So you get to function at your optimal level."

M&T also encourages bank employees to give back to the community through community outreach and charitable activities. "We're part of the community and we want to be perceived as the bank next door," says Lawrence. That means lots of feel-good activities, including chances to join forces with the Baltimore Ravens in volunteer work. (M&T bought naming rights to the stadium in 2003.)

Add in good benefits and it all adds up to a workplace that employees love. Average tenure at the bank is 8.7 years, compared with the industry average of just 3.9. "I think people like the fact that the bank goes out of its way to create a very friendly and happy working environment," says Lawrence. One last bonus: M&T has been profitable for 132 consecutive quarters, or 33 years, which means you can add stability to its list of assets.

Northrop Grumman Corporation (Electronic systems sector)

Location: Headquarters is in Linthicum, with several other offices locally. (National headquarters moving to Washington, D.C. area in 2010.) Employees: ES employs about 21,000 people worldwide, including about 8,500 in Maryland—most of them in the greater Baltimore area (Northrop Grumman has 120,000 employees worldwide/10,700 employees in Maryland). Who they are: ES designs, develops, and manufactures defense and commercial electronic sensors and systems. What we love: Solid benefits and pay, a commitment to listening to employees and to developing employees' careers. Best benefits: Homeowners' discount program, tuition reimbursement, flextime and alternative work arrangements, subsidized backup child care and adult/elder care.

How's this for a perk? ES offers an online mentor-matching service. And the partnerships are pretty surprising.

Take ES fellow engineer Chandler Archuleta and director of learning and development Tracey Draper. On paper, they didn't look like the perfect mentoring match. After all, they're in different fields, right?

But actually, Archuleta says connecting with Draper has been a boon. "Her knowledge is so valuable," says Archuleta. "It shows me a completely different perspective."

He was seeking someone with experience in leadership. Draper, for her part, was hoping to give back to the organization after eight years moving progressively up the leadership ladder. They were soon meeting informally, with Draper offering suggestions to help Archuleta improve his management skills. "I don't want it to ever end," says Archuleta with a laugh.

The informal mentoring program, called Mentoring Connection, is just one part of ES's efforts to help employees develop professionally. The company also does speed mentoring—think speed dating but without the romance. And ES also covers the full cost of tuition and fees for employees, offers technical and leadership training programs, and has a career-services center.

There's more that makes ES appealing, including reward programs for employees—the most popular has paid out $5.9 million to more than 8,500 participants—a reputation for competitive pay, and flexible work arrangements. And, of course, there's the allure of working on high-tech systems that help protect our nation.

NuStar Energy

Location: Baltimore City. Employees: 1,700 worldwide; 27 in Baltimore. Who they are: A petroleum products and liquid storage facility; transports oil via pipelines; also refines crude oil for asphalt. What we love: No layoffs, small company feel with corporate benefits. Best benefits: Company-funded pension plan, an all-employee bonus plan that in 2008 averaged 8 percent of pay, health coverage that's rated the best in the industry by Hewitt Associates, and a tuition reimbursement plan that pays 80 percent of costs, including books.

If first impressions can be trusted, the one Tim Hutson exudes is all business. In the flurry of activity that goes along with being terminal manager of a bustling liquid storage facility, there isn't a lot of time for warm fuzzies. But when Hutson talks about his employer, San Antonio, TX,-based NuStar, he comes surprisingly close to gushing.

"I just can't say enough about this company," he says earnestly. "They take care of their employees." He should know—Hutson has spent the past 26 years working his way up the ranks and through various changes in local management. What he's come to appreciate most about NuStar: "They put their money where their mouth is."

For starters, NuStar has never had a layoff. When business is slow, employees are put to work on capital improvements or equipment upgrades. NuStar's benefits also are notably good, and the company often pitches in to match employees' charitable donations and to help improve staffers' lives. Hutson's son, for example, won one of the company's $10,000 college scholarships.

It's the kind of dynamic that breeds fierce loyalty. Last summer, Hutson had the company's name painted in 8-foot letters on the side of a storage tank that's visible to drivers as they enter the Harbor Tunnel. "I wanted to put something up there, just for recognition," he says. "It's a matter of pride."

Raytheon Solipsys

Location: Fulton. Employees: 185. Who they are: A wholly-owned subsidiary of Raytheon, Solipsys makes advanced tactical display and communication systems and integrated command-and-control networks for Homeland Security and the Department of Defense. What we love: Intriguing work, a culture built on teamwork, good benefits. Best benefits: 401(k) with 200 percent match on employee contributions up to 4 percent of salary, tuition reimbursement of up to $7,000 per year, week off between Christmas and New Year's.

It's a cold December Wednesday, but the employees at Solypsis are warming up inside their shiny new office building with pizza and play. At the four Nintendo Wii's stationed around the company's multipurpose room, Solipsys employees flaunt their non-work skills—batting, bowling, and guitar strumming away as their peers look on. It's all part of Wii Wednesday, one of Solipsys's regularly scheduled employee events.

"These people work hard and they play hard," says human resources director Robin Goble. The events offer a chance to wind down, connect with coworkers, and just have fun. And they're a good way for Solipsys to say thanks to its employees, who labor to ensure the company's command and control products perform "without fail."

Of course, there are other perks, like paid time off between Christmas and New Year's, a generous 401(k) match, an ideal location in a manicured work-and-play complex, and the chance to contribute to high-tech defense projects.

TESSCO Technologies

Location: Timonium, Hunt Valley. Employees: 920. Who they are: A publicly traded wireless technology products and solutions supplier. What we love:Close-knit culture, good benefits. Best benefits: Employee stock purchase plan, annual and quarterly bonus program, tuition reimbursement up to $5,250, $1,000 toward cost of buying a home.

We don't have to tell you, recessions stink. But some companies get through them better than others. When TESSCO started to feel the burn of a bad economy early in 2009, it made the painful decision to cut pay by 5 percent for employees and 10 percent for management. Ouch. But the cost-cutting helped TESSCO avoid large-scale layoffs and continue to grow its business.

And six months later, with business back on track, TESSCO thanked its employees for their sacrifice in the best way possible, reinstating everyone's pay and even paying back the six month's worth of lost salary.

The whole thing was a bonding experience, says Suzanne Laleker, the human resources director. "It went a long way in making people feel as if they directly contributed to the company and, in return, they were paid back."

That symbiotic relationship is part of the culture, which puts real value on listening and responding to employees. When TESSCO employees feel they're due for a raise, for example, they fill out a compensation adjustment request, in which they can talk up their recent accomplishments and make their case for more money. "It's truly a company that rewards value, so when you think you've added value, you go ahead and tell them," says marketing associate Paul Garland, who recently asked for, and got, a raise.

It helps, too, that management is highly accessible, and, thanks to a no-enclosed-offices layout, often just a cubicle away, says Garland.

The company has made the Forbes list of the 200 best small companies for three years running and, after a few months of no growth in 2009, is back on the growth track, which means, yes, they're hiring.

Under Armour

Location: Locust Point. Employees: 3,000+. Who they are: A publicly held developer, marketer, and distributor of performance apparel, footwear, and accessories. What we love: Energetic and exciting culture, nice offices, and, of course, the employee discount. Best benefits: Stock options and stock purchase program, annual bonuses, tuition reimbursement up to $6,000 per year, adoption assistance of up to $5,000, home-buying assistance of up to $2,000, on-site dining, casual dress code.

When Under Armour signed on as an official supplier for two teams in the 2010 Winter Olympics, senior director of innovation and outdoor Nick Cienski and a product manager flew to snow training camp at Mount Hood, OR to kickstart the design of the teams' outerwear. In their luggage: a sewing machine and a laminator. "We measured the athletes at the training camp in Oregon, sewed that night, and had them back to the athletes the next morning," says Cienski.

"That's the Under Armour DNA, to get out there and make decisions," chimes in Kip Fulks, senior vice president of innovation and outdoor. Nineteen months, 12 trips, and countless hours of work later, the red, white, and blue custom-designed gear—which cost about $1 million in research and development alone—was ready to ship.

As Fulks and Cienski explain how they accommodated the athletes' need for tunes by integrating electronics into the clothing or added thumb hooks for easy cinching, another part of Under Armour's DNA emerges. That would be "passion for the product," which comes directly down from founder and local-boy-made-good Kevin Plank. The result is a palpable vibe of excitement that greets you the minute you walk into Under Armour's Tide Point offices, which have recently been expanded and upgraded. One sweet new addition: a fully operational basketball court that doubles as an auditorium.

Wegmans Food Markets

Location: Hunt Valley, with a new store opening in Landover in 2010, and future plans for stores in Bel Air, Columbia, Crofton, Frederick, and Germantown.Employees: 38,000+; about 700 at Hunt Valley store. Who they are: A privately held grocery chain. What we love: Employees-first philosophy, great benefits. Best benefits: Defined contribution retirement plan, scholarship program worth up to $2,200 per year.

When Wegmans sets out to create its infamous "theater of food," the first thing it does is think about the actors. That would be the employees, and Wegmans goes to great lengths to make sure they're well-trained and happy.

And it's not just us saying so. The company has made Fortune magazine's list of "100 Best Companies to Work For" each year for the past 12 years. The grocer stands out, in part, because it offers some pretty impressive benefits for its field, including health care coverage for full- and part-time employees—including coverage for same-sex domestic partners—and a 401(k) with employer match.

Most impressive, though, is the company's scholarship program: It has paid out more than $71 million over the past 26 years.


How We Found Them
We started our process with a round of calls to the professionals who deal with employers firsthand: recruiters, business development leaders, community leaders, and, of course, employees. To be considered, employers then filled out our detailed questionnaire, which sought information on 401(k) programs, health benefits, diversity initiatives, career development offerings, maternity and parental leave, and much more. In considering companies, we worked to end up with a mix of large and small companies from a variety of industries. As always, companies had to be financial healthy and hiring in the coming year. Our list is not ranked; the employers are listed in random order.


10 FUN PLACES TO WORK

Orioles: Solid benefits and a culture of promoting from within, not to mention the ballpark views and free O's games.

The National Aquarium: The Aquarium has positions that range from "visitors' services" jobs to marine mammal trainers, and boasts an upbeat, explorative culture.

Maryland Institute College of Art: MICA has tuition reimbursement, a hearty 403(b) match, and you're surrounded by creativity.

Millennial Media: This Canton-based mobile advertising network offers up the fun, fast-paced culture you'd expect from a startup, plus ample benefits.

Blue Sky Factory: This little Federal Hill tech company offers up solid benefits, bonuses, and a super-casual dress code.

Planit: The fast-paced advertising and marketing agency has a fun and funky workspace with fabulous harbor views, plus a beer-stocked bar.

Trader Joe's: This specialty grocer has a casual, energetic environment, plus a promote-from-within culture.

Baseball Factory: This Columbia-based organization trains players of all ages and advises high school baseball players on the recruiting process.

Ravens: The organization offers game tickets, use of the team's training facilities, and on-site meals served during the season.

The Baltimore Museum of Art:The BMA has impressive benefits, a collaborative culture, and it's one of the few cultural organizations that avoided layoffs last year.


How does your workplace compare?

It was a tough year for employers, and many couldn't quite insulate employees from the pain. Some 60 percent of employers surveyed nationally by The Society for Human Resource Management in early 2009 reported they'd had to cut back on benefits. What they do offer:

Health Benefits
Percentage of employers offering:
Dental insurance: 96%
Prescription drug coverage: 96%
Chiropractic coverage: 80%
Mental health coverage: 80%
Vision insurance: 76%
Employee assistance program: 75%
Medical flexible spending accounts: 71%
Long-term care insurance: 39%
Domestic partner coverage (opposite sex): 37%
Domestic partner coverage (same sex): 36%
Health care coverage for part-timers: 35%
Acupressure/Acupuncture cost coverage: 28%
Retiree health care coverage: 26%
Laser-based vision correction coverage:19%

Preventive Health and Wellness
Wellness resources and information: 72%
On-site vaccinations: 64%
Wellness programs: 59%
24-hour nurse line: 50%
Smoking cessation program: 39%
Fitness center membership subsidy: 35%
Weight loss program: 30%
On-site fitness center: 21%
Nutritional counseling: 19%
On-site blood pressure machine: 18%
Massage therapy at work: 12%
On-site medical clinic: 5%
On-site nap room: 4%

Financial
Life insurance: 91%
Defined contribution retirement savings plan: 90%
Employer match for defined contribution retirement savings plan: 72%
Undergrad education assistance: 63%
Graduate education assistance: 59%
Employee referral bonus: 52%
Individual investment advice: 38%
Retirement planning services: 35%
Defined benefit pension plan: 29%
Sign-on bonus: 27%
Matching charitable contributions: 19%
Scholarships for employees¹ family members: 17%
Stock options: 16%
Transit subsidy: 13%
Parking subsidy: 10%
Free or discounted home internet service: 6%

Paid Leave
Paid bereavement leave: 90%
Paid jury duty (above that req. by law): 62%
Paid vacation plan: 47%
Paid military leave: 24%
Family leave above FLMA leave: 22%
Paid time off for volunteering: 15%
Paid adoption leave: 15%
Paid paternity leave: 15%
Elder care leave above FLMA: 11%
Paid sabbatical: 5%

Family Friendly Features
Bring child to work in an emergency: 29%
On-site lactation room: 25%
Domestic partner benefits (not including health care coverage): 14%
Child care referral service: 13%
Elder care referral service: 11%
Adoption assistance: 10%
Access to backup childcare service: 5%

Flexible Work Benefits
Casual dress day: 59%
Flextime: 54%
Compressed Workweek: 37%
Telecommuting (full-time): 19%

Other benefits
Mentoring: 22%
Food service/subsidized cafeteria: 21%
Dry cleaning services: 10%
Pet Health insurance: 3%
On-site haircuts: 1%

Source: Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)'s 2009 Employee
Benefits Survey Report

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