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EMPLOYERS TO PROSPECTIVE HIRES: HERE YOU GO

Low unemployment and high housing prices are bringing out charitable streaks in employers recruiting new workers. Need help finding work for your spouse? It may happen. Ditto for school tuition and signing bonuses.

Keen to recruit medical researchers to the University of South Florida, Dr. Abdul Rao fixed his sights on a talented scientist from Tennessee.

Rao never figured filling his laboratories would require him to wade knee-deep in golf balls: The scientist indicated she liked Florida, but could Rao's office help her husband land a management job at a Tampa area golf course?

"We have sent out letters to 20 different golf courses to see if we can find a job for him," Rao said. "If you want to hire top people, the trailing spouse issue is a continuous challenge.''

The Tampa Bay area's low unemployment and a rising cost of living are driving employers to acts of generosity they hadn't contemplated in years.

Need help finding work for your spouse? Your new company can help. Ditto for all-expenses-paid house-hunting trips, tuition for private schools and signing bonuses.

A few years ago, corporate recruiters relied on the familiar Florida refrain: Mothball the winter parka and join us in the land of the everlasting sun. Low housing prices - new four-bedrooms for a tad over $100,000 were common until the late 1990s - made hooking employees that much easier.

Daniel Bloom, a corporate relocation consultant in Largo, describes the prevailing attitude at the time: "Here's $250 and welcome to Florida sunshine.''

The formula worked - maybe too well for some employers. After leading the nation in job creation for years, Florida's unemployment rate has settled at 3.3 percent, well below what economists consider full employment. And almost everyone knows about homes doubling in price since 2000.

Craig Sher, president of St. Petersburg developer the Sembler Co., once bribed employees with bonuses to encourage moves from Florida to Sembler's office in Atlanta. Now the reverse is true. "The cost of housing here is at or above Atlanta. You can get more bang for the buck in greater Atlanta than you can in greater Tampa,'' Sher said.

PricewaterhouseCoopers has been on a hiring spree to fill finance and information technology jobs at a Tampa complex that employs 1,800. According to local manager Kenneth Cooke, Price has dusted off a disused job recruitment tool: To help some hires relocate, the company will buy their homes if they've been wallowing on the market.

"Our job is to keep people whole. We don't want them to suffer a financial loss," he said.

While most of the best incentives cater to executive and experienced positions, attracting younger employees, including recently minted MBA graduates, is proving tough. Tampa and St. Petersburg still suffer from a lingering fogyish reputation reflected in a national young worker study that ranks the region behind Orlando and Miami, not to mention Atlanta and Seattle.

Across the United States, national recruiters talk of luring MBAs with free iPods, Rocky Mountain ski trips and limousine rides. It's not happening much here, but Stephen La Barbera, head of career services at the University of Florida's graduate business school, noted a recent perk of companies flying a graduate in for several days of house-hunting with a specially appointed real estate agent.

"That's new. It's a big deal and extremely well-received," said La Barbera, whose new grads earn median pay of $67,000.

High-tech firms such as Tampa's Pilgrim Software talk of doling out "West Coast" salaries to get high-tech wizards to drop San Jose and Seattle for the Sunshine State.

The Association for Workforce Mobility, a national group that keep tabs on the latest incentives, polled 160 of its members this year. Seventy-percent, including Florida mainstays Disney, CSX Transportation and Progressive Insurance, said it was becoming harder to hire the talent they needed. Only 5 percent said talent was available and easy to find.

FrankCrum, a large human resources and temporary staffing firm in Clearwater, concurs. After draining the local talent pool, it recently has resorted to signing bonuses to entice out-of-state talent. "We never really offered them before," vice president Elise Lynn said.

Sembler includes private school tuition in setting executive salaries, playing off the perception that Florida schools are lackluster.

"I'm on thin ice here," Sher said. "Executives feel more comfortable in the greater Atlanta public school system than in the greater Tampa public school system.''

Rao and his colleagues at USF Health, playing in the rarefied league of Ph.D.s, leave little to chance. Even the "welcome package" placed in candidates' hotel rooms are crafted to maximize impact: USF backpack, crystal picture frame and Florida treats. To hire roughly 100 each year, Rao's division interviews 400 candidates.

Said Rao: "Three hundred sixty-five sunny days out of 365 days of the year is not enough anymore.''

Times staff writers Christina Rexrode and Steve Huettel contributed to this report. James Thorner can be reached at (813) 226-3313 or thorner@sptimes.com

Why workers need enticements to come to Tampa Bay

3.6% Unemployment rate for Tampa Bay area in January

4.8% Unemployment rate in the United States

125% Increase in Tampa Bay area median home price since 2000 ($94,900 in Feb. 2000 to $213,300 in Feb. 2007)

82% Average increase in Florida homeowner property insurance premiums since 2004 hurricane season

$35,922 Average yearly wage in Tampa Bay area (2006 estimate)

Last Ranking of Tampa Bay area wages compared with five competing cities in the Southeast.

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