Q: We are a financially solid North Bay company looking to build our company’s engineering team to prepare for new market opportunities. When we do manage to find qualified applicants, they express enthusiasm about joining us. But several times after making what we believe is a strong offer, they accept positions with other companies. This is taking far longer than we anticipated. Do you have any advice for us?

A: Even though the economy certainly seems to be in recovery mode and people are hungry for work, the hunt for technical talent is turning out to be more challenging than expected. There are some demographic trends that may be contributing to the difficulties your company is encountering.[poll id="38"]

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Most significantly, there is a growing availability gap in skilled professionals due to a wave of retiring baby boomers, and this trend only promises to intensify over the next 10 to 20 years. Of course, a newer, younger generation of talent is coming into the job market but because they have very different expectations, they are changing the game.

The way you refer to finding qualified people makes me want to ask how your company is seeking engineering candidates. Are you relying solely on online advertising? If you were my client, I would ask to meet with your hiring manager to assess your recruiting practices and process. I would also need to become familiar with your company’s mission, culture and goals, and then I would recommend developing best-fit profiles for your immediate openings as well as a strategic workforce plan for fulfilling your overall company goals -- if you don’t already have these.

Short of gaining this deeper knowledge and understanding of your company, let me tell you about another North Bay high-tech company we have been working with recently, because its experience seems to parallel yours. We are recruiting specialized engineers to design and develop next-generation communication systems. Because of the limited supply of technical professionals here in the North Bay with the skills needed, we had to source candidates nationwide and even from Canada.

Plenty of talented professionals are interested in coming here to the North Bay to work, play and live because of our natural beauty, great weather and wine country lifestyle, although these are always weighed against certain risks -- and this is where the demographic trend I referred to earlier comes into play. Younger, single professionals may not necessarily be as motivated by the North Bay lifestyle because they often prefer the energy of big-city life, where there is always an abundance of opportunities in close proximity and, frankly, where they can make a lot more money.

My firm has had more success attracting professionals outside of California with families -- both couples with children for whom quality-of-life amenities are essential and empty-nesters who are freer to make such a change. For those with families, however, relocating to an area where there is a limited supply of other companies -- should the new arrangement not work out -- makes the risks more complex. Often, the spouse also has to land a new job, and of course, their kids must change schools. Finding the right housing is always a challenge for young, growing families. Fortunately, housing in the North Bay has become more affordable during the economic downturn, with more available inventory and record low interest rates.

My point is that for top professionals to be willing to take all these risks associated with a major job transition, your offer better be worth it. The crux of attracting and retaining top talent to North Bay companies like yours comes down to three main things: compensation, compensation and compensation. OK, so it’s really one main thing that I’ve written about before in this column.

Salaries in the North Bay tend to be 20 percent to 30 percent below the greater Bay Area. This puts companies like yours at a distinct disadvantage in what I call the war for talent. You say your employment offers are “strong,” but do you know how your salaries compare to your competitors’? Are you prepared to offer above-market compensation packages for top professionals and perks for their families to attract them to come here? Does your company have plans for keeping your technical talent happy once you win them, so you can protect your assets from your competitors?

For talent needs as mission critical as yours, I would encourage you to pursue professional staffing services, particularly if you can’t answer those questions. Like many companies, you may be reluctant to make a financial commitment to acquire talent, but the fact is, you already have. The issue is how to get the most value from your investment, especially since the cost of even one bad hire can wind up costing your company far more than time.

The client I mentioned previously, which struggled for a long time with hiring the talent they needed, is now quite successful. What happened? Their level of pain became motivating enough to make them willing to invest in professional talent-acquisition services and restructure their compensation and relocation packages to above-market levels. Now, they are prevailing in the war for talent.•••

Jennifer Laxton is president of Santa Rosa-based ESA Consulting (707-525-1010, esa.com, jklaxton@esa.com), a consulting company providing talent acquisition, workforce planning and career coaching services.