SANTA ROSA -- A majority of executives at Sonoma County companies say they are unable to fill job openings with local hires, calling for a greater community focus on K-12 education and offering their input in aligning higher education programs to the needs of their industry, according to a recently completed series of interviews by Sonoma County BEST.

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As one of many findings in the group's recently completed "100 in 100" initiative, the finding is among other concerns gathered from more than 100 Sonoma County executives and will help guide BEST's focus in the coming months, specifically in respect to efforts related to business retention and expansion, according to BEST Executive Director Carolyn Stark.

"This is not a survey -- this was a series of interviews and conversations," Ms. Stark said. "We're using it as a baseline for our ongoing work."

BEST interviewed executives at businesses across the size spectrum, enlisting volunteers to assist with the effort over more than three months.

While the interviews did not include a quantitative survey, staff at BEST estimated certain figures to describe consensus among Sonoma County companies:80 percent of executives reported positive movement to adopt a better "customer service" approach to the regulatory process, particularly in the city of Healdsburg. Interviews found a desire to reform CEQA, remove redundant regulations and add measures to improve regulatory predictability.50 percent  expressed a need to bring suppliers closer to Sonoma County as a measure to cut down transportation costs, with many current suppliers already on the cusp of bringing foreign operations back to the United States.60 percent reported that connectivity to the Charles M. Schulz--Sonoma County Airport was important to their business growth, including one large local company that was considering moving executive offices to a more accessible location.50 percent of responders said that, in anticipation of job growth, they desired better connectivity to related industries.50 percent expressed support for efforts to enhance local hiring and reduce outsourcing of jobs.50 percent said that policy makers should support the development of a vibrant urban culture in Santa Rosa and Petaluma, a measure that would help recruit talent and attract complimentary businesses. Many in the group reported a perceived lack of sophistication in the region.

"This has basically launched our ongoing business retention and expansion efforts. It's like painting the Golden Gate Bridge -- it never ends," Ms. Stark said.

The retention and expansion effort is part of a multi-pronged approach for BEST, which also includes committees focused on business innovation, development of a supportive business environment and workforce development.

With a goal of creating 2,500 direct jobs and 4,100 indirect jobs in Sonoma County in five years, BEST was launched through the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce and has received $3.25 million in investment from sources that include local financial employers, institutions and the County of Sonoma.