As banks build up their insurance operations, they are finding it difficult to recruit sales agents.

In general, bank insurance jobs take more than two months to fill and banks have had to adjust salaries in the past 18 months to compete, said Caryn Berzack, Atlanta office manager for Keystone Consulting Group. The firm recruits for insurance programs at several large banking companies, including Bank One Corp. and SunTrust Banks Inc.

"It's unbelievably hard to find people right now - there's just a shortage of qualified candidates in the marketplace," said Ms. Berzack.

As a result, banks must assemble attractive compensation and benefit packages to reel in top talent. "You just can't attract insurance people at banking salaries," Ms. Berzack said.

Most banking companies have made the adjustments, but it is still difficult to turn offers into acceptances. "When you identify a very good candidate, the person typically has a couple of offers," Ms. Berzack said. These days many more employees than usual get counteroffers from their current employers.

One impediment for some banks is their location away from major urban areas with large labor pools.

Atlanta-based Wachovia Corp. didn't need to go far afield, said David L. Holton, president of Wachovia Insurance Services.

This year he wanted to hire 15 agents with professional designations and more than 12 years in the business. Wachovia also required candidates to have experience in estate planning and affluent marketplaces, Mr. Holton said.

Newspaper articles about the company's insurance plans were enough to bring in resumes, he said.

For Wachovia's 15 jobs, he found suitable applicants from independent agencies and captive agencies that serve just one underwriter, Mr. Holton said.

Those types of agents are increasingly attracted to banks, said M. Evan Lindsay, a partner in the insurance practice of Heidrick & Struggles, a national recruitment firm. The potential rewards from cross-selling to, and data mining of, bank customers is outweighing old impressions among insurance types that banks are bad places to work, he said.

Many of those who have made the switch to banks aren't easy to pry loose, either, Mr. Lindsay said. "We have not seen many people wanting to leave it-in fact many find it very stimulating," he said.

The promise of warm leads from other bank employees was one of the biggest aids to Wachovia's hiring effort. But not all bank insurance staffing has required individual persuasion. Most bank insurance growth has come through acquisition.

Buying agencies is one good way to get younger agents who will sustain growth at times when others are retiring, said John M. Wepler, principal and vice president of merger and acquisition services at Marsh, Berry & Co. in Concord, Ohio.

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