The job hunt for unemployed white collar workers has grown harder in the past year, but top-ranking executives will have little trouble finding work, according to the nation's largest outplacement firm.

"It's cherry-picking time for employers," said Jim Cabrera, president of Drake Beam Morin Inc. "With the shrinking of jobs in the service industry, particularly in financial services, we now have a lot of talented people out there competing for similar jobs."Corporate efforts to run a "tighter ship" have also created a more restricted job market, Cabrera noted.

Cabrera's firm, which provides counseling and assistance to out-of-work middle- and upper-level executives, surveyed 1,207 men and women about their job search.

Women have a slightly easier time finding a new job than men do, but finding work is a difficult task for older people of both sexes, according to the survey.

While most jobs were lost due to reorganization and downsizing, the survey detected an increase in the number of people who lost their jobs because of personal conflicts or "chemistry."

The survey showed that the amount of time it takes for executives to find a new job has risen to 6.8 months from 5.9 months last year.

For women, the search time rose to 6.4 months from 5.3 months in 1989. Male executives took slightly longer to find work, at 6.8 months, compared with 6.4 months last year.

The survey said that for the third consecutive year, job opportunities increased most rapidly in marketing and sales, with the number of openings up 8 percent.

Cabrera said the rise stemmed from the view that beefed-up marketing and sales forces can turn companies around during periods of business contraction.

"There seems to be a tendency to think that marketing and sales cure everything, and there's always an emphasis on getting more sales and to bring in someone new who may have a magic cure," he said.

Average compensation for the executives in their new positions rose to $91,333 from $84,664 last year.

Management cutbacks have made it tougher for senior executives to find jobs, Cabrera said. Senior executives took an average of 7.4 months to find a job, compared with 6.7 months last year.

"There are less jobs at the higher prices, and the increased competition makes it harder for the managers to find work," Cabrera said.

An exception is at the very highest levels of management, where executives find it easier to make a transition.

"People who earn more than $300,000 tend to find a job faster because they are more identifiable and their track record is known," said Cabrera.

The survey showed personal chemistry was gaining in importance as a cause for job loss, rising to 14 percent from 3 percent last year.

"Chemistry has always been the No. 1 factor in layoffs, but in the past 5 years, the heavy onslaught of mergers and acquisition have made a lot of people redundant, especially those that don't fit the chemistry mode," said Cabrera.

By region, chemistry was a prime factor in job losses in the Northwest, averaging 30 percent. The Southwest came in second place with 28 percent.