With the high cost of housing in the Tahoe-Truckee area, a major challenge for local businesses over the past decade has been to attract employees who can afford to live here. Ski resorts, grocery stores and rafting companies have responded to the crisis by hiring foreign college students from South America and Eastern Europe. But those are entry-level jobs. What about when it comes to finding qualified professionals to head major organizations? Surprisingly, for four local agencies in the middle of a leadership search, the affordable housing issue has been a non-issue.
The North Tahoe Public Utility District started its hunt for a new general manager in October, when Steve Rogers left to take a job as Yountville town manager in the Napa Valley. This was only the second time in 33 years that the NTPUD has had to find a new GM – its first GM, John Hassenplug, retired in 2004 after 30 years. As in 2004, in October the district hired a recruitment firm to advertise the position and find qualified candidates. By January 15, when the ad closed, 50 people had responded to the job announcement. NTPUD Board Vice President John Bergmann, who is heading up the recruitment process, said candidates came from both out-of-state and around the region, such as Reno, the foothills and Northern California.
‘We are pleased with the response we got,’ Bergmann said. ‘It seems like a strong field.’
Out of 50 candidates, the board will interview six finalists on Feb. 15. So far, Bergmann said that housing has not been an issue. ‘Most of the candidates we interviewed don’t need that kind of help,’ he said. ‘They are old enough and have equity in another community.’
Even when the NTPUD recruited Rogers four years ago, housing assistance was not necessary.
While Bergmann acknowledges that the cost of housing and harsh weather conditions can be a challenge to recruiting people to work in Tahoe, he said that the area’s natural beauty and recreation activities are a draw. The NTPUD’s salary range and benefits package is also competitive with other California districts, Bergmann said. A starting salary for a general manager is $140,000.
‘It’s a factor every employer deals with up here – it’s tough to find folks that are willing to relocate up here for the wage structure, but that has changed,’ he said.
Another factor that may have contributed to the large response to the district’s job opening was the fallout from the national mortgage crisis.
‘There are more high-level management candidates out there looking for work because the construction industry is not going well,’ Bergmann said. ‘The stability of a government job is appealing.’
Similar to the NTPUD, the Truckee Donner Public Utility District had its first opening for a general manager position in 23 years last July when Peter Holzmeister retired. Like the Tahoe district, the TDPUD also hired a recruiting firm. The TDPUD got an estimated 30 responses to the job opening, and hired Michael Holley from the Contra Costa Water District as the new GM in January.
Although the process took about six months, district administrative secretary Barbara Cahill said that was the amount of time the district had expected the search to take.
Cahill said that the board made a conscious decision on how to pitch Truckee as an attractive community to live and work in, despite the housing market and severe winters.
‘What is going to draw someone here?’ she said. ‘The spin is clean living.’
The brochure put out by the headhunting firm emphasizes the charm of a small community and lists the many recreational opportunities, like skiing, hiking and biking.
The TDPUD also offers a competitive salary, which ranges from $147,000 to $179,000 for a general manager. The district did not have to provide any housing assistance for Holley.
Perhaps more than any other local organization, the Workforce Housing Association of Truckee Tahoe – whose mission is to ensure that the region has a sufficient supply of affordable housing – knows the challenges of finding low-cost housing for employees. But so far, the association says that housing has not posed a problem in finding candidates for the executive director position. The job became vacant in December after WHATT’s first executive director, Rachelle Pellesier, left to pursue other opportunities closer to her home in Reno.
WHATT Board Member Hank Lewis, who is in charge of recruitment, said that the association’s top five candidates all have a reason to move to Truckee, either because of family or of a desire to return to Northern California. Although the board hasn’t discussed a need for housing assistance yet with any of the candidates, Lewis said WHATT is not in a position to offer financial aid.
‘We are a non-profit, we don’t have the financial capacity to offer housing assistance,’ he said.
What the association does have to offer, however, is the opportunity to live in Truckee and work in the affordable housing field.
‘To live here and contribute to the cause of building affordable housing is a big draw for those in that [field],’ Lewis said.
Like the other organizations, the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District’s search for a new head has not faced any major hurdles. The school district began its hunt for a superintendent last July, when Dennis Williams retired due to health issues. The district hired a headhunting firm in September, and received 17 applications for the position. The school board has since narrowed the list of candidates down to three, and has done a second round of interviews. Interim Superintendent Jo Lynn Wilson said the board is happy with the number of applications they received.
‘I believe 17 is a good number,’ Wilson said. ‘The one question I did ask the board is if they were pleased with the quality of applicants, and they said they were extremely pleased.’
Although the superintendent search is taking longer than normal – seven months compared with an average of four to six months – Wilson said this was due to when the vacancy occurred, not to a lack of qualified candidates.
‘Summer is not a time to reach out to employees because no one is around,’ she said.
While the cost of housing can be issue, Wilson said that the benefits of living in the Tahoe area for someone attracted to this kind of community outweigh any disadvantages.
‘When you’re talking about someone at that level of position, housing here would not be equal to what they could get elsewhere,’ she said. ‘But anyone interested in being here would be truly interested in living in the Sierra.’