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Pursuit of Talent Is Relentless Even as Companies Pare Down

San Diego brings to mind sunshine, beaches, golf courses and theme parks — a great place to vacation or retire. But people don’t always associate San Diego with great career opportunities and great pay — and that can bring trouble for businesses looking for highly qualified, desirable people to hire.

“The perception of San Diego was that pay is lower and you take the job for the sunshine and the place,” said Bob Watkins, chief executive officer of R.J. Watkins & Co. Ltd., a downtown San Diego-based international executive search firm. “But we are seeing the economic diversification, the strong defense, electronics and science sectors here and pay has grown to match the sectors not the location.”

The demand for skilled, experienced workers — particularly in engineering, technology and the executive suite positions — is rebounding from flat, Watkins said. Though the growth is tenuous now, he expects to see it rising through the second half of the year.

“In the new economy, and that’s what we have coming, the efficiency model will prevail where companies have learned to do better with less and will want to keep their recovery efficient,” he said. “That means more contract employees, more contract services — buying things like human resources and payroll support to keep the company head count down.”

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There is an immediate demand for people with software programming, networking and other information technology skills, he said, and for all types of engineers. The life sciences sector has been flat for the last two years, and the medical devices sector is beginning to percolate, he said.

The San Diego Software Industries Council’s Executive Director Bob Slapin thinks the need for software programmers and technology wizards is dramatic — so much so that the council is working with the City of San Diego and its more than 100 business members to launch a national campaign to attract talent — or as Slapin calls it: human capital — in September.

Alarming Number of Openings

“The software industry here is doing well and typically does well as the market recovers because it increases productivity,” he said. “We have an alarming number of openings — our research shows there are nearly 6,000 openings in the area for software engineers and analytical scientists.”

Slapin said the jobs are spread among companies ranging from small startups in the wireless industry to big defense companies. Miramar-based Sony Computer Entertainment America — home of PlayStation, which laid off 200 workers and shuttered its Denver, Seattle and Tucson, Ariz., offices at the end of March — has openings, he said. As do Sempra Energy, Charlotte Russe and Qualcomm Inc. — openings he said the companies are having a hard time filling.

“Some are for Java programmers, some are for games, some are for the defense industry, there’s a broad range of companies looking for skilled programmers,” Slapin said.

One of the challenges of recruiting in these recessionary times is that candidates are more concerned about stability than they have been in the past.

“Candidates are more cautious to move because they want to know that they are going to a job they can keep and one where they can grow,” said Judy Thompson, CEO of Judy Thompson and Associates, which specializes in recruiting financial and executive candidates. “Companies definitely have to have a good story to tell to appeal to the better candidates — you can’t just attract good people by running an ad. Because there have been layoffs, the best candidates are looking at the company history and reputation, including what they did during the recession.”

Not every company is considering people who have been out of work for a while. In March, MSNBC singled out Sony Ericsson for specifying that “the unemployed need not apply” for their job openings.

Careful Consideration of Candidates

That’s a mistake, Thompson says.

“There are very good people out there — the economy has been hard on people across the board,” she said. “A lot of companies start out looking for the purple squirrel, the candidate who has everything and a stripe down their backs, at a low-ball salary. There’s a lag in perception on the part of businesses that think they have greater advantages than they really do.”

Mel Katz, co-owner of San Diego Manpower Inc., says he does see a skill shortage.

“Java, Android developers are hard to find. If that’s what you do, you can write your own ticket,” Katz said. “Candidates are shopping the benefits and time off, looking for employers who will help with relocation, maybe selling your house.”

They’re also looking for jobs that keep them current, he said.

“They’re saying I want to go where my skills are constantly developing and I won’t become obsolete — they don’t want to move into management, they want their skills to develop. There are people who prefer to stay contractors so they can work on interesting projects and stay very current in the market.”

Qualcomm is one of those companies, Katz said. They’re losing their people to companies like Facebook or Google or Apple Inc.

The most desirable candidates also want to live somewhere vibrant and interesting.

“It’s hard to recruit people to Pittsburgh,” Katz said. “You graduate from Carnegie Mellon and you leave. People who graduate from California universities tend to want to stay in California and companies that want the best people tend to move to where they want to live.”

Resource for Growth

While Slapin declares that “human capital is the most important part of growth,” he acknowledges that the industry isn’t investing in educating or retraining people who could become employees.

“The industry isn’t training people,” he said. “Human capital is a resource and if you don’t have it, you need to find it.”

Biocom, the University Towne Center-based life sciences group, has taken a different approach to developing and retaining the highly educated workers the industry requires.

The Biocom Institute has been awarded $9 million in grants during the past year for its education efforts aimed at attracting people to the life sciences industry by supporting and promoting science education — including providing scholarships for advanced training and retraining, according to the institute.

Marty Graham is a freelance writer for the San Diego Business Journal.

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