They are miles apart on the career spectrum, the 23-year-old recent graduate from Philadelphia University and the 59-year-old executive.

But Jennifer Pilgrim and David Strange share top billing in the get-ready-to-rumble story of a national construction company with ambitions of being a dominant player here once building regains its nerve.

Pilgrim and Strange are recent hires at Skanska USA Building Inc., of Blue Bell, where the payroll has grown an industry-rare 10 percent (12 people) since January, despite a punishingly long construction drought.

Sound like a company with a serious reality disconnect? Hardly. Construction firms around the Philadelphia region say they are rebuilding, regrouping, and retraining now for busier days in the future.

Skanska, for example, insists the currently miserable construction stew of stalled projects, sidelined backhoe loaders, and laid-off engineers, estimators, and project supervisors, offers opportunity.

The company, which entered the Philadelphia market via the 2000 acquisition of Barclay White Inc., also opened a satellite office in Wilmington last month, staffed with a single employee.

"It's a good market to get good people now," said Ed Szwarc, Skanska's Philadelphia-area general manager and executive vice president.

Vouching for that is Daniel J. Keating III, president and chief executive officer of Keating Building Corp. A year ago, Keating hired John K. Ball away from the company Ball's maternal grandfather, Ray Shoemaker, established 66 years ago: Shoemaker Construction Co. in West Conshohocken.

Ball had been president of Shoemaker. He is now senior vice president of operations at Keating.

"I felt he would be able to lead us in areas we haven't pursued, or haven't pursued very well," Keating said last week of the hiring decision, made during a period when his company shed a half-dozen employees and was acquired by Perini Corp., of Framingham, Mass.

Hiring requires money, something construction companies are not exactly flush with these days. Layoffs have been more the norm.

There have been 15 at Shoemaker in the last two years. (Ball was not a layoff; his departure, made "on the very best of terms," was his decision, his brother said.)

Shoemaker is using this retrenchment period to further train its remaining workforce of 35, said Roger Ball, who succeeded John Ball as president.

"In lieu of capturing new talents from others that may be in layoff mode, we're kind of focused on retraining our core talent," he said.

That means project managers, engineers, and superintendents are pursuing what has become a must-have in these green times: Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

Shoemaker employees also are trying to become more facile with new 3-D technology known as Building Information Modeling, or BIM, which is expected to accelerate construction. It also enables every element of a building, from shop drawings to particulars of a heating/air-conditioning/ventilation unit, to be downloaded to a handheld device.

This downtime for the construction industry, builders say, is all about doing everything possible to be best-positioned to secure contracts when they are finally written again.

Very likely, that is at least a year away, industry officials predict. When construction prospects once again flourish in this region, a majority are expected to be related to health care and higher education, two sectors that kept some contractors busy during this otherwise arid time.

Government projects could be plentiful too, the result of stimulus funding.

In Skanska's view, hiring now is important to demonstrate to potential clients that the company is capable of delivering a team of experts to complete projects.

With a parent company in Sweden that reported $17.9 billion in total sales last year, Skanska can afford its $1 million in new local hires even if, as Szwarc confided, the Blue Bell and Wilmington offices are not exactly buried in blueprints.

"They are not fully working, but they're working," he said of the recent recruits.

Grateful for any work is Strange, one of the layoff casualties at Shoemaker, where he was vice president of business development until his departure in December after 18 years with the company. He now has the same job at Skanska.

Strange insists he does not feel "a terrible amount of pressure," in large part because Skanska has a deep bench of experts he can call on from around the country and the world.

That is especially comforting to a guy who still speaks of the sting of losing jobs to bigger competitors such as Skanska and Barclay White when he was at Shoemaker.

"We came in second so many times in a two-year period, it was painful," Strange recalled last week.

Nevertheless, Roger Ball praised him as "a talented business-development guy."

Among those at Skanska who hope Strange is good at what he was hired to do is Pilgrim. With a bachelor's degree in architectural studies, she returned to Philadelphia University in June 2009 for a master's degree in construction management after being laid off by a general contractor a month earlier.

In March, Pilgrim finally landed a job as a project engineer at Skanska; she started June 1.

"It's pretty awesome right now," she said last week.

Awesome. Now there's a word that hasn't gotten much use recently in construction circles.