UPDATE 2-Resilience in tech hiring helps Hays promise bumper payouts

* Hays plans to return 150 mln pounds to shareholders

* CEO says pandemic creating new roles in tech, life sciences

* First-half profit plunges 78%, net fees better than feared (Adds CEO comments from call, share move)

Feb 18 (Reuters) - The CEO of recruitment agency Hays said the COVID-19 pandemic had boosted its technology business as more sectors ramp up their digital presence due to lockdowns, enabling it to promise 150 million pounds in special dividends.

Chief Executive Alistair Cox told Reuters on Thursday that Hays has seen relative resilience in its technology business, with some areas including London now operating at levels even higher than what they were at before the pandemic.

“The world needs more technology-savvy people, all businesses need them, it is not just the technology industry,” he said.

“Every business pretty much in the world is going through some sort of digital transformation journey and they need access to these skills whether it is data scientist, cyber security, cloud infrastructure.”

He added that many of those were jobs that did not exist few years ago.

UK-listed Hays, which raised 200 million pounds last April, said in its half-year results statement it intended to return the surplus capital to shareholders in two phases, starting with a 100 million pound payment to be declared in August along with its annual results.

Staffing firms around the world have struggled with a sharp drop in fees, which led some of them to downsize their workforce, as most sectors held back on new hires because of the global health crisis.

But Hays, whose consultant headcount at 2020-end was 17% lower year-on-year at 6,548, said it expects the number to increase by around 2-4% in the current quarter.

Shares were down 0.4% by 0845 GMT after the company’s profit plummeted 78% to 21.1 million pounds for the six months ended Dec. 31.

While net fees fell 24% to 422.8 million pounds, it was better than the 35% drop what Hays had predicted under its modelled scenario.

Larger rival Randstad NV last week said that business had returned to pre-crisis levels in January after a steady recovery in the last three months of 2020.

However, Hays’ Cox tempered expectations for the entire business to go back to pre-COVID levels any time soon, saying it would take a couple of years.

$1 = 0.7221 pounds Reporting by Muvija M and Indranil Sarkar in Bengaluru; Editing by Rashmi Aich and David Evans