"There is a dearth of top-quality people you can deliver to your clients," said Dwight Foster, executive managing director of Foster Partners, a New York executive search firm.

In this era of mergers and downsizings, who would have guessed headhunters would lack for placement candidates?

Mr. Foster said he thinks the banking industry may face a shortage of qualified managers for senior jobs in the next 18 months. Already, he said, the cost of recruiting top-flight talent has skyrocketed as stock options and other capital appreciation plans gained popularity.

"Do the math," said Mr. Foster. "There is a lot of sticker shock on moving people around."

Commanding the top salaries are candidates who have experience in areas, like securitization, that are fast-growing. Harder to place are managers with more traditional banking skills. Many, Mr. Foster said, land in the U.S. offices of international banks.

Other signs indicate that the job market for mid- to upper-level managers is more welcoming. A new survey finds that, while the average manager looking for a job today is older than in 1980 - 47 compared with 43 - the length of the average search has fallen from 3.6 months to 2.7 months. Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm, said the average salary is $69,000.

But Mr. Foster said that searches to fill highly paid jobs usually run four to six months - in part because candidates must meet with more people before getting an offer. "There is always a bit of serendipity in this," he adds.

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