The refinance boom that has taken the industry to unheard-of heights is also giving mortgage executives the jitters - making recruiting difficult and driving salaries up.

"A lot of people are very wary about where they go and what jobs they take," said Peter Hall, with the San Francisco-based executive search company Chartwell Partners.

Busy Time for Headhunters

Executive searchers trying to meet the needs of an industry notorious for its boom-and-bust cycles are having a busy year.

And although the current boom has created heavy demand for new workers, those doing the searches say the industry's track record has made some executives leery of getting into the mortgage game or changing jobs.

"This business has been very cyclical, with people getting hired in busy times and fired in slow times," said David DeWilde, also with Chartwell Partners.

Inflation in Salaries

"Candidates want to know about the long-term stability of the company and what sort of protection they'll have in the post-refi era."

The timidity among executives has led to an inflation in salaries as mortgage companies struggle to attract new talent and hold on to the people they already have, said Mark Springer, who runs his own executive search company in Southern California.

Paradoxically, while the end of the refinance boom will surely cost some people their jobs, executive search companies will likely do well during such a period, as mortgage lenders scramble to adjust to new market conditions.

Demand High at Lower Levels

"We always thrive on change," said J. Nicholas Hurd, managing partner with the executive search company Russell Reynolds Associates.

There is no denying that the truly remarkable expansion in the mortgage lending business has forced companies to hire more people, especially among the ranks of lower and mid-level management.

"At lower levels the demand is as hot as it was in 1986," said Mr. Springer.

Reason to Think Twice

But Mr. Springer said there is good reason to think twice about jumping into the mortgage finance industry during a boom.

After the last boom, which occurred in the mid-1980s, many executives hired to handle the surge in business were promptly laid off.

"They're all mortgage brokers now." Mr. Springer said.

Slowing the Searches

Mr. Springer said that many mortgage companies have begun to slow their searches in anticipation of an ending to the refinance madness that has gripped the industry.

"The street-smart companies are looking at 1994 and putting off big staffing moves until they figure out what's coming," Mr. Springer says.

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