The personnel executive flying in from Denver last Thursday morning to interview for a job had plenty of time to worry as his plane circled Burbank Airport, unable to land for 45 minutes because of the earthquake that shattered the windows of the airport's flight-control tower.
Headhunter Walter McNichols, a vice president with Gary Kaplan & Associates in Pasadena, said Wednesday that he was able to placate the unnerved job prospect. But other business executives and professionals considering job offers in the Southland remain shaken. Jarred by the temblors that have struck the Los Angeles area for the last week, they are wondering if they would be better off staying put.
Recruiters, meantime, say the earthquake and aftershocks are convincing at least a few local executives to accept jobs that mean a move away from Southern California. And recently relocated employees--welcomed by shaking earth, scorching heat, power outages and traffic tie-ups--are rethinking their transfers to Los Angeles.
"Every single person I've talked to on the phone in the last week from out of town has brought up the issue of how bad was the quake, what are the predictions in the mid-term, is it as bad as we've seen on the national news," said Barry Deutsch, manager of the Los Angeles office of Cunningham Jacob Adler & Associates, an executive search firm that specializes in placing financial managers. "People are obsessed with it."
"The earthquake factor" is an ever-present problem for Southern California placement experts. Although other issues--chiefly high housing costs and traffic congestion--are of wide concern to executives weighing job offers in the Los Angeles area, headhunters say recruits worry about earthquakes even when they haven't recently occurred.
"The whole issue of California-is-going-to-fall-into-the- ocean-someday has been important in a lot of people's minds from out of state, but particularly in some of the more rural communities of both the Southeast and up in the Midwest," said Randall Hill, a director in the Los Angeles office of Spencer Stuart, an executive search firm.
With quakes now at the forefront of job prospects' concerns, recruiters predict that in the coming days some candidates will back away from job offers that had been accepted. And they say it may take as long as six months before quake-related anxieties subside to their normal low level.
McNichols said he has tried for the last week to steer conversations with potential recruits to other subjects. But his efforts are to no avail--just, he says, as was the case when he was a recruiter in San Francisco in 1979 and the Bay Area was hit by temblors that registered 4.9 and 5.9 on the Richter scale.
"I see the same pattern developing now," he said. "There's apprehension. . . . There's this big resistance, saying, 'Has it settled down now? Do you think we'll get another one? I hear the big one is coming.' "
In the last few days, Erik Kempinski, president of Real Estate Executive Search in Napa, had three Northern Californians withdraw from placements in Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego on account of last week's 6.1 quake and the 5.5 aftershock that followed early Sunday.
"Their wives said, 'No way,' " Kempinski explained. "When one part of the family has concerns about it, that doesn't make for a comfortable life style."
Parker Prout, Security Pacific's managing director of human resources, has had some explaining to do to his own family. Prout joined the bank in August, and his wife and children are still in northern New Jersey. She called as soon as phone service was restored to his apartment on Bunker Hill last Thursday.
"She said, 'Are you coming home now? Have you had your fun?' " Prout recounted.
Told to Be Candid
Anticipating some skepticism about life in Los Angeles as Security Pacific recruiters begin touring college campuses this month, Prout has instructed his staff to be candid when questioned about earthquake dangers.
"I'm letting the recruiters and other people who attend these functions meet those concerns with comments on the design of our building (and) our safety procedures," he said. Prout also is encouraging recruiters to relate their firsthand experience of living through a major quake.
"It certainly was an interesting experience for me," he said.
Many recruiters say they greet the fear of quakes by pointing out that California has no monopoly on natural calamities.
"When somebody says to me, 'How dangerous is it?' I say that just as many people died in the snowstorm in New England last weekend as died in this earthquake," said Mike Hoevel of Poirier Hoevel & Co., a Los Angeles search firm.
Officials of many major Southland employers--Lockheed Aerospace Systems, Unocal, Hughes Aircraft, Transamerica Insurance and Northrop among them--say their personnel and recruiting offices have detected no reverberations from the earthquakes. Southern California's positive attributes, chiefly its climate and celebrated life style, outweigh the negatives of an occasional deadly tremor, recruiters explain.
On the other hand, quakes can quicken an executive's resolve to leave Southern California. Gene Phelps, who works with Hill at Spencer Stuart, said one Los Angeles executive who had turned down a job in Arizona only two months ago took his family to Phoenix last weekend for a second look.
"His eldest daughter, a first-grader, had made quite a to-do. His wife is upset. They're all upset about earthquakes. And he had earthquake damage in his house," Phelps explained. "Now he's very interested and he's entertaining a job offer."