Hale Kreycik knows the U.S. job market is tight. But the chief executive officer of Converse County Bank in Douglas, Wyo., never thought it would take two months to hire a new loan officer.

In searching for a commercial and agricultural lender with 5 to 10 years of experience, Mr. Kreycik put advertisements in newspapers as far away as Denver and Omaha. He also asked friends in the industry for names-to strikingly little avail.

"Almost without exception they said, 'If you find someone let me know,'" Mr. Kreycik said.

Across the country, it's getting harder and harder for community banks to find good help. With nationwide unemployment running at just 4.7%-the lowest rate in 24 years-community banks are finding entry- to mid-level job applicants in decidedly short supply.

In the race to woo the available talent, many small banks say they are handicapped by remote locations, perceptions that the institutions offer limited career growth, and intense competition from bigger banks and companies outside the industry.

The problem, experts say, could well get worse before it gets better, as more community bank employees reach retirement age. Ultimately, it could have serious competitive implications for thousands of small banks.

"I'd say (the crunch) is already restricting growth at individual banks," said Dennis Burnette, an executive recruiter at Sanford Rose Associates in Roswell, Ga. "I know there are banks that feel there's a world of opportunity but they don't have the people to get the job done."

Some of the greatest demand is for lending officers and trust department personnel. Faced with fierce competition in those fields from big banks and nonbank financial companies, community banks are finding that they need better employees than ever.

"Community bankers can no longer simply attend rotary functions or take clients to lunch and then wait for business to come to them," said Shannon Scharber, chief operating officer of Careers Inc. in Nashville.

At the lower levels, demand is high for back-office technical personnel and tellers.

With larger banks moving processing centers to single-and typically more urban-locations, the technical talent pool is migrating away from small towns, said Steven Halverson, president of Kittitas Valley Bank, a $42 million-asset bank in Ellensburg, Wash.

"You just don't have that expertise running around your community," he said.

And James A. Kruger, president and chief executive officer at Community Bank in Santa Fe, N.M., said it now can take as long as six weeks to fill vacant teller posts.

"The big difference today is that you have to go out and recruit, even at the teller level, whereas you used to be able to turn to a list of people that had applied for jobs before," Mr. Kruger said.

The crunch at community banks comes amid a general rise in employment in banking. Though many banks are laying people off as part of mergers, plenty of others are hiring in order to expand into new products, new geographic markets, and new delivery channels. The upshot: Total employment in banking rose by 1.8% in the 12 months through June, to 1.51 million people.

As the hiring proceeds, many jobs are going begging.

Just look at bankjobs.com. When Careers Inc. launched the Internet site two years ago, it posted an average of 3,000 middle and senior level job openings a week. Today, it's not unusual for bankjobs.com to list 6,000 job openings a week.

Technology posts are proving particularly difficult to fill. A soon-to- be released study of bank chief information officers by the Tampa search firm System One Technical Inc. found that key bank technology positions are sitting vacant for an average of 105 days.

Community banks, in particular, face formidable obstacles in competing for people.

Location often heads the list. William T. Fike, president and chief executive officer at SierraWest Bank, Truckee, Calif., said he's generally had little trouble filling jobs in urban centers such as Sacramento and Reno. The problem, he said, is finding people interested in relocating to offices in less developed areas like Truckee.

"For us, it's a matter of geography," Mr. Fike said.

The inability to offer fast-track career advancement can also hamstring smaller banks. While some recruiters say they're seeing established bank professionals choose community bank careers, the big banks are still grabbing most young would-be bankers.

"Larger banks are a lot more aggressive at going to college fairs and getting people in management training programs," said Ms. Scharber. She added that though base salaries at community and regional banks are similar, the larger banks offer far better incentive packages.

Eventually, the wave of mergers and acquisitions among community banks could help change the perception that community banks offer limited career growth. After all, the mergers do produce larger institutions.

John F. Burger, president and chief executive officer at Six Rivers National Bank, Eureka, Calif., said one side benefit to his bank's recent purchase of four Bank of America branches is the "opportunity to fast-track employees to areas of greater responsibility."

And some community banks are have been able to snap up good employees who have been laid off in mergers of big banks. This is especially true at the managerial level.

But consolidation can also hinder community banks efforts to land top talent. Mr. Burnette of Sanford Rose Associates said the prospect of merger-related job cuts can make a bank employee jittery enough to seek employment in a less volatile industry.

"There are so many mergers and acquisitions that if you work in a small bank you're always looking over your shoulder," he said.

Meanwhile, small banks are facing increased competition for talent from companies outside of banking.

Roger Raber, director of membership services at America's Community Bankers Center for Financial Studies, said he's seeing many former bank employees parlay their experience into new careers at brokerage, accounting, or consulting firms.

Some of the problems stem from changes in training programs. Though community banks have historically plucked talent from big-bank training programs, today's programs are often focused on developing experts in particular areas of banking.

"It used to be that when the big banks hired people, they trained them to do it all, from teller to loan officer to branch manager," said James M. Pishue, executive director with the Washington Independent Community Bankers Association in Bellevue, Wash. "They're not training well-rounded bankers anymore, and that's really what a community banker needs."

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