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Skilled Professionals Wanted

Author: Bonnie Durrance
December, 2018 Issue

In the North Bay, many jobs remain unfilled, spanning a variety of industries. Health care and hospitality industries can’t find qualified professionals, and county government and school districts are having trouble filling any kind of jobs. At any level, more jobs are available than there are skilled professionals to fill them. What’s going on?

“The entire west is facing a challenge,” says Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.  “The fire issue affects the whole west coast, exacerbating the existing crisis with regards to housing supply and cost of living, and driving out some residents who’ve lost their homes. We are going through an extraordinary period," he says. “We’re in a tremendous boom. Unemployment generally, in the west, is about 3 percent. I believe that’s true nationwide. For employers, it’s difficult. It’s just the opposite of a few years ago, when there were a lot of employees and no jobs. Now there are a lot of jobs and no employees. We’ve come a long way over the last 10 years from record unemployment to now 2.7 percent.” It seems counterintuitive, but now that unemployment, which was bad for those needing jobs is low, employers are hurting as they struggle to fill open positions.

“We’re the largest employer in the county,” says Shirlee Zane, Sonoma County Supervisor for District Three. “We have more than 4,000 employees. We employ psychologists, engineers, lawyers, health care nurses—we’re the most comprehensive and largest employer in the county—and we’re having trouble.”

Before last year’s firestorm, the county already had a critical lack of affordable housing, and teachers were reportedly sleeping in their cars. Since then, the crisis has compounded.  “Low unemployment would be good, if we didn’t have both the fire recovery and the lack of housing,” she says. Housing is essential to maintaining a successful business environment in Sonoma County, according to Zane. Further complicating the matter, construction companies can’t find workers. “You can’t grow a business if you don’t have a place to house people,” she says. Zane is especially worried about the health-care industry where people earning—or being recruited for mid-level salaries—can’t find affordable housing.  “If you can’t recruit nurses and other health-care workers because of lack of housing, that affects quality of life, especially because we have an aging population,” she says.

This growing population is sometimes referred to, ominously, as a “silver tsunami,” since as people age, they increasingly require more health care which, because of their numbers, threaten to overwhelm health-care providers.  “Teachers, too. How can someone who makes $60,000 a year afford to live here?” Low unemployment, low housing stock—for all income levels but especially in the mid-range and topping all that, more people in a “greying community” leaving the job market to retire. “It’s like a perfect storm.”

Where is the talent to care for this aging population? And why are North Bay employers having such a hard time?

Robert Eyler, Ph.D., professor of economics at Sonoma State University and chief economist at Marin Economic Forum sees a complex of possible causes for recruiting difficulties in the North Bay. “The reason talent is so hard to find, or why the labor market is tight, is there are better returns to be had in other places besides the North Bay, meaning the South Bay and San Francisco,” he says. Younger people are still attracted to the urban environment. There still are better returns on living a relatively simple lifestyle for decent wages in San Francisco than living in a suburban place at 75 percent wages.” 

He sees jobs, housing supply and desirability of place as all part of a complicated equation, each element imposing consequences on the other and none of them static. For example, he says the kinds of people who come to the North Bay impact the nature of the housing and therefore, the job market. “What we find, is that when people move here they’re usually here to stay,” she says. “Not like in an urban environment.” So, there is not as much turn-around in housing or as many vacancies.  That creates need and impacts prices.  “Housing prices are relatively high for what the housing stock provides,” he says.  “This discourages younger people at relatively lower wages from buying.”

What if suddenly, a number of available rentals opened up? More people could come in to take advantage of the lower rent. Is that good? “You could argue that that’s not the goal here,” says Eyler. “People who work for low wages rent rather than buy until they build wealth.” But overall, as consumers are providing services, they could make the economy more productive, but the end result is unknown. “There’s no silver bullet saying if you built more housing you’d have a more talented employee base. If you had a more talented employee base, you’d naturally have a demand for more housing units. It’s supply and demand.”

Recruiting skilled tale

"There are so many factors that play into this,” says Karen Alary, managing partner at The Personnel Perspective in Santa Rosa. “For example, construction and manufacturing companies see fewer people are following their families into the trades. Fewer people can afford to live in the counties where they work today.” “In the professional levels, younger demographics have a variety of different motivations, including salary. Salaries in certain jobs continue to increase,” adds Sue Wortman, senior recruiter at The Personnel Perspective. “Employers are paying more to attract people, but higher pay isn’t always going to solve the labor shortage challenge.”

“More money is one factor for changing jobs, but not the only factor,” says Alary. “Benefits and creative perks are important, and people want to feel connected to the company for which they work, so they’re also looking at the company’s mission, culture and work environment.”

Wortman agrees. “The companies that have well-defined and articulated cultures, articulated inside and outside the company, will attract like-minded people,” she says.

Says Alary, “If you’re interested in volunteering your time to a nonprofit, you’re going to seek out one whose work speaks to your heart. That nonprofit needs to project to you that its mission is in alignment with your personal values. Wortman adds, “A company with a clear mission conveys the heart of the company. If I can identify with that, I’m going to be attracted to it.”

The benefit of location

“We are fortunate,” says Woolsey McKernon, senior vice president and chief revenue officer of CleanFund Commercial PACE Capital, Inc., a Sausalito-based clean energy company that has grown an astounding 1,235 percent over the last three years, putting them in the Inc.5000 list of fastest growing private American companies for the second year in a row. “The whole clean energy industry has taken a beating over the last two years,” he says. “Still, we have a lot of bright young and not-so-young people who want to make a difference, to make a dent in climate change.” That is something many people, especially in this area, feel passionate about. “We can post a job and attract very talented candidates just on the back of what we do for a living.”

Location helps. Our founder lives in Marin and chose Sausalito as a base for the company, which has worked. “It’s fun for people who come to visit us, to say we’re based in Sausalito,” says McKernon.  The location works for most everyone. It’s convenient for employees who live in Marin, or San Francisco and everyone is encouraged to use alternative transportation. He says Golden Gate Transit was about to discontinue one of the key commuter lines from San Francisco, but the San Francisco-based employees banded together to petition Golden Gate Transit directly. “They ended up keeping the bus service,” he says. The energy-conscious group got to maintain their ideals. Employees ride bikes or take the bus, and the top management all drive electric cars.

Attracting terrific staff is only half the battle. In terms of expanding their employee base, aside from a few executives, the majority of their hires have come from San Francisco. “We have an offer out to someone from Novato, who accepted yesterday, and someone we just interviewed from Florida, who wanted to move here,” he says. Housing and the cost of living present challenges, but are not insurmountable. “We just hired a guy in Kansas City,” says McKernon, pleased, but not surprised. For him, getting the best and the brightest, he says languidly, “is not a problem.”

Not that great employees are easy to come by. CleanFund uses a recruiter on a part-time basis, for senior-level staffing, but for McKernon, the successful recruiting begins with keeping the culture of the company strong. “We do a number of company retreats with the whole company,” he says, noting that they just had an overnight at West Point Inn on Mt. Tamalpais. “These are critical bonding experiences,” he adds. Then comes clear messaging, and the public relations skill to articulate the mission and culture clearly through personal outreach and the website. There too, ClearFund shines.  Their website’s career page highlights the company and what Sausalito has to offer. Get inspired; play with the dogs; do meaningful work while you look out at the sailboats leaning into the breeze.

Kaiser cultivates its own

“You hear everybody saying there’s a shortage,” says Judy Coffey, senior vice president and area manager for Marin/Sonoma at Kaiser Foundation Health Plan. “Sonoma County pays well, at least in the Kaiser world, but it’s just getting people here.”  For Coffey, and for Kaiser, that is a matter of creating incentives.  They believe in promoting from within. “We have a great tuition reimbursement program,” she says. So a bedside nurse can work to become a manager through the programs, with tuition assistance. “We have a lot of internal programs so that a new manager can go to middle management program, and an advanced manager program can move up to an executive management program (at Harvard). So, we’re trying to grow from within.”

The culture of Kaiser is always to advance health and Kaiser works with the community in many ways. “We’re pretty connected in the community,” says Coffey. “I was walking the floors in the hospitals yesterday, and we had students from Empire College, Santa Rosa Junior College, Dominican College and Sonoma State University, all getting training.”

This training is part of Kaiser’s commitment to cultivating their employee base from within the community. “In Marin, for example, we work with the high school so that kids can graduate with a medical certificate and come and work with Kaiser. We also work with Indian Valley College, College of Marin and Dominican College, teaching nursing students,” says Coffey. They may have employees who work at entry-level jobs while going to school. Then they give them assignments. They start learning and the next thing they know, they’re able to apply for a job. What they’re doing seems to work. “We’ve been voted the best place to work for 13 years in a row.”

Looking outside her own walls, she acknowledges the complexity of the problems, especially regarding housing and health care. “I’m not going to take away from the housing crisis,” she says. “Our clinics struggle to find staffing.  Yet we are a greying community. Health-care issues tend to be focused on the two ends of the human life span—babies and elderly. So how do we attract young people to come here?  How do you get high tech people to come here?  You’re going to have to have an infrastructure that [offers] housing and has a downtown.”


Sonoma County’s message

The Sonoma Economic Development Board (EDB) has responded to business concerns about recruiting talent. A moment of clarity came 10 years ago, when the president from a local engineering firm called executive director Ben Stone, saying they had a 45-year-old man with unique engineering skills who was interested in coming from Pennsylvania for an interview, and thought he would spend a week here. They desperately wanted him, but he had a wife and family to think of too, and there was a lack of public information regarding quality of life in the county to entice him. This and many similar calls made it clear that there was a gap to be filled. The job market and housing crisis may be complicated, but here, thought Stone, was a way to start helping now.

“We put together the Sonoma County Connections,” one of the first ‘talent attraction’ websites of its kind,” says Stone. This is a highly graphic, warm and friendly arts-culture-lifestyle-filled website with a page for each of the nine cities showing businesses, restaurants, parks, schools, safe neighborhoods, and attractions—weather, wine, food—that some of us take for granted. “We updated it last year,” he says. It was a community effort getting the work compiled. “We put the original together with 60 human resources directors. To update the site we worked with the economic development managers of our nine cities. They were thrilled to have this information because quality of life is our biggest asset—so this site helps them to attract the talent they need.”

Why a website? In the course of listening to employers who couldn’t attract the people they need to recruit from elsewhere, Stone and his EDB colleagues on the EDB realized that a candidate doesn’t relocate here just for a particular job, but with a set of criteria including interest and lifestyle needs, and often including family needs such as schools, health and senior care. “For example, if you’re trying to recruit a 40-year-old single woman, she may have older parents who might want to move here as well—so what do you have for seniors?”

In Sonoma County Connections, each of the nine cities has its own page and is represented the way the economic development director wanted to present it. Does anyone notice? “We get 20,000 visitors to the website a year,” he says. And not only that—wait for the next installment: they’re working on a series of videos right now that will show how it looks and feels to live and work in Sonoma County. This way, somewhere in the deep of winter snows, someone in Kansas or some other far-off place may have a look at what it might feel like to live and work in Sonoma County–and pick up the phone.

Following the Kaiser model, the Sonoma County Workforce Investment Board (WIB) is working on other fronts, to train skilled workers locally by working with the junior college. The EDB is also starting a program of cooperative education with the local junior college, Sonoma State University and Empire College, to get more people to work in local companies and to stay here when they graduate.” The whole mindset is to support and train up local talent, to cultivate loyalties and interest both locally and at large through online media, and to get serious about housing needs. This is a multi-faceted response to a complex problem, especially when it comes to housing. “We need to be intentional about building housing of all forms,” says Stone. “The boomers are used to plenty of housing, and in the last few years, the need has grown faster than the homebuilding. We want to be intentional about setting goals for our housing industry to succeed here—housing units, condos, apartments, all sorts of housing. And we need to be intentional about growing our own cooperative education and intentional about having that website up and constantly improving it, so we can get the talent we need.”

Meanwhile, waiting for housing, and for in-community training and for businesses to work on their culture and outreach and draw to businesses the staffing they need, Robert Eyler looks at how to balance business and housing and wages and lifestyle while maintaining an attractive atmosphere, and delivers the economist’s cold reality.

“The easiest thing to say is there is no easy solution. Looking for one is going to make you very disappointed,” he says. “There’s no utopian solution. You’re never going to get a relatively low-cost environment with relatively high housing prices, relatively high wages and no commuting. Everything’s a trade-off. At some point, supply and demand pitches you into higher costs one way or the other.” In the painful short term, referring to shortage of employees, his advice is no less stark. “You are going to have to assume you’re going to be paying more workers to come in from another place. For better or for worse, that’s what you’re looking at.”  

 Marin Economic Forum Employer-Education Partnership

The Marin Economic Forum (MEF) received a grant in of $50,000 in February from the Workforce Alliance of the North Bay, and a matching grant of $50,000 from College of Marin to study current and future employment needs in Marin County. The new employer-education partnership will be about a year-long project, focusing on Marin’s two major industries, tourism/hospitality and business/technology. Upon completion, the project findings will be shared in a community-wide presentation to business leaders and the community. Partnerships created as result of the project will carry out recommended findings. For more information, visit

 Strategic Sonoma

Visit the Strategic Sonoma website for a glimpse of their five-year economic development strategy for the county. This includes three phases. The first looks at the county’s socioeconomic trends in comparison with other areas; the second phase looks at target industries and their ability to support community goals; the third phase is a five-year action plan based on results of phase one and two. The action plan includes fire recovery, housing, workforce and education, business diversification, sustainability and transportation.














In this Issue

Moving Home

It has been almost two years since the devastating firestorms hit the North Bay in 2017, burning down 5,143 homes and leaving nothing but ash and debris in its wake. While to many the incident leave...

Moving Home

It has been almost two years since the devastating firestorms hit the North Bay in 2017, burning down 5,143 homes and leaving nothing but ash and debris in its wake. While to many the incident leave...

The Barlow After the Flood

When an atmospheric river began dumping rain on Sonoma County in late February, no one at The Barlow was too concerned. The City of Sebastopol received frequent updates on potential flooding from So...

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