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Petaluma focuses on job attraction


As Petaluma’s booming post-recession development paves the way for new residents and merchants, business owners are struggling to attract candidates to fill jobs across all sectors.

Local officials and economic experts attribute the issue to a complex web of factors, including the city’s low unemployment rate, skyrocketing housing costs and a lack of a specialized educational foundation to prepare the next generation of workers.

“It’s a big issue,” Economic Development Manager Ingrid Alverde said.

To combat that trend, city and county staff have developed a portfolio of resources to help employers sell prospective workers on life in Petaluma, including a recently released 39-page career and lifestyle guide. Developed by the city’s economic development division, the guide delves into industries, housing, school and culture.

“It was generated by working with several HR managers in town struggling to recruit the talent they need,” Alverde said. “Since there’s a lot of competition in the Bay Area for talent, they spend a lot of time helping recruits understand what Petaluma is like. One company said that they know how to sell their company, but they don’t know how to sell Petaluma.”

Ben Stone, the executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, said the county was the first in the nation to develop a talent attraction website a decade ago. It’s since revamped and relaunched the site that features a county overview and profiles of each jurisdiction to provide context for job seekers, he said.

While those tools will help paint a picture of the community, Mary Lynn Bartholomew, the area manager of Petaluma’s Nelson Staffing Solutions said issues filling jobs across all industries still persists.

She said the employment agency works closely with business to sweeten the pot to draw in and then keep staff on the job, including additional benefits and compensation packages. In 2015, 65 percent of Sonoma County employers reported hiring difficulty, listing insufficient number of applicants, the tightening labor market and a lack of qualified candidates as driving factors, according to 2016 workforce survey of 200 organizations.

“It’s getting harder to attract and retain people,” she said. “It’s extremely difficult.”

As of July, Petaluma’s unemployment rate was 2.5 percent, compared to a 3.9 percent countywide rate and a 4.8 percent statewide rate in that same time frame, according to county and state data. In 2016, 32,900 people were employed in Petaluma, with 3,207 active businesses, according economic development board data.

For Susan Hollingshead, the chief people officer at ticketing software company Vendini, Inc., it’s a challenge to fill higher-level positions, including software engineers. That mirrors a nationwide trend, she said.

“It’s not as robust at the (higher) experience levels we would like to see,” she said. “But, if we have the time and the patience we do find those people. We’d like to see more in the area, but we significantly grew our teams in the Petaluma office.”

Since acquiring Sebastopol-based In Ticketing and moving to Petaluma about two years ago, the staff has grown from five employees to about 40, she said. She touted Petaluma’s culture, community and location as selling points, but said that the guide will further help draw in candidates.

“It’s almost like having a road map of how to talk about being in Petaluma to our employees, whether that’s someone recruiting a new hire out of the area or someone we would want to relocate,” she said.

Onita Pellegrini, the executive director of the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce said housing prices are a deterrent, forcing some workers to commute in from outside communities, diminishing the quality of life that comes from living and working in the same city. Conversely, those workers often don’t reinvest their paychecks locally or spend time in the community, leading to a decline in sales tax revenue and taking away from the social fabric of Petaluma.

The median home price in Petaluma is $659,600, according to Zillow. The city has a 2.68 percent vacancy rate across its major apartment complexes, with the average monthly rent for a three-bedroom apartment ringing in around $2,843. Meanwhile, the median income in Petaluma is $77,149, according to the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

“It’s going to take a huge concerted effort by lots of people,” Pellegrini said. “How do you stop people from moving an hour and a half away because they can buy a bigger house? When you’re raising three kids, that’s appealing.”

As baby boomers “age out” of jobs and retire, Stone pointed out that those specialized positions that some employees have dedicated their careers to are hard to fill with someone with an equal level of expertise. Jobs are becoming increasingly focused, and he pointed out local and countywide initiatives to connect students with a broader range of skill sets, including a pilot program to take students to a manufacturing plant.

Alverde said she’s hopeful that the city’s ongoing efforts and partnerships will aid employers in the talent search.

“It could challenge certain companies to either not be able to grow or not be as successful as they want to be if they can’t find the talent they need,” she said. “It’s an important challenge to address with tools and lots of efforts to increase the workforce.”

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)