Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | If you want your city to be known as an up-and-coming tech magnet, develop your talent pool so you can attract investment.
The tech industry is growing everywhere. As cities and smaller regions in the heartland see more startups and innovation, it might feel like tech hubs are expanding beyond the traditional coastal tech giants. While initial growth holds some promise and opportunity, the reality is that big cities continue to dominate the tech economy. Ninety percent of all innovative sector employment growth remains concentrated in five major coastal cities.
The influence of Silicon Valley and other major hubs has not diminished. And because tech giants continue to grow in these regions, they attract other companies to move where the talent, existing infrastructure and investment dollars are. Big tech also attracts more talent, by scooping up candidates from smaller cities in the middle of the country with attractive remote work opportunities.
To remain competitive and attract private and public funding to drive local economies, leaders of smaller cities will need to fight for their place in the tech-forward economy. The most effective place to start is with their talent pools.
The Magnetic Pull of Tech Talent
Human capital is the most valuable factor in a tech company’s success. In today’s rapidly evolving tech landscape, companies can’t thrive without workforces that are willing and able to evolve quickly as well. Company leaders will always go and grow where they can find a rich vein of talent, or at least several proven pathways to cultivate the talent their organizations need.
This presents an enormous opportunity for cities willing to put time, energy and money behind developing tech talent among their populations. Take St. Louis where the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency invested nearly $2 billion in its new western headquarters. “The ability to recruit new talent based on the environment [St. Louis] offers” was a leading deciding factor. Geospatial curriculum is uncommon in college computer science programs, so the city cultivated a talent pool with geospatial skills in creative ways. Now, St. Louis is even attracting other geospatial intelligence companies to the region.
Creative Talent Cultivation
Thinking beyond traditional university and college pipelines when it comes to supporting talent development is crucial. The way people are learning tech skills is changing as they seek out more accessible, affordable and accelerated pathways with online courses, coding boot camps or other alternative skilling methods. One study from Course Report shows that coding boot camps grew by 39% in 2020 to graduate nearly 25,000 people, and online-specific learning grew by 306%.
For some time, tech hubs have thrived on the coasts because that’s where many universities and computer science graduates were. Now, with so many other ways to cultivate tech talent, other cities have a huge advantage—if they’re willing to support and fund alternative skilling pathways.
For city leaders, providing this support will most effectively come down to promoting company and industry involvement. Companies need specific skill sets, and public or private supporters must consider particular pathways to develop talent that’s employable right away. Start with these steps:
1. Identify the tech programs and gaps in your vicinity.
Your region likely already has some successful existing tech training programs. Learn about those programs to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses while getting to know what kinds of tech talent companies are searching for. Identify any gaps in your skilling pathways and plan for how to invest in existing programs or develop new ones to fill them.
For example, Louisville embarked on such an initiative in 2019 with its Year of Tech campaign. The Metro Chamber of Commerce dug deeper into the needs of the region by commissioning a formal mapping of tech companies and promoting tech-related information, events and programs focused on education in blockchain, engineering, information technology and more.
2. Pay close attention to accessibility.
To grow and develop your tech talent pool, you need anyone who is interested in tech to be able to take advantage of your city’s skilling programs. That means the programs need to be as accessible as possible. Even large metropolitan areas like New York City have struggled to create tech education opportunities that are accessible enough: Research shows that barriers such as geographic disparities and capacity challenges significantly limit programs’ reach.
The good news for smaller cities is that scaling access is likely to be easier, but it will still require thoughtful accessibility consideration. Think about what could stop someone from taking advantage of skilling programs, and then remove those barriers. For example, courses should be inexpensive or free and offer flexible timing.
3. Think about both the future and the now.
Investing in K-12 tech training is a popular move and is a good one. Educating children now can create a strong workforce for the future of your city. But you have to consider your city’s current workforce, too. Many adults who are already working in your region are likely looking to retrain for more lucrative careers in tech and would jump at the opportunity to start today. Help them access valuable opportunities while you develop your tech talent pool.
As city and municipal leaders try to secure a spot for their communities in a tech-forward economy, they’ll need to be thoughtful about how to fill skills gaps and expand access. With the capabilities to develop a highly skilled and future-oriented talent pool, cities can attract more tech companies and funding for future technology infrastructure.
Jeff Mazur is the executive director for LaunchCode, a nonprofit aiming to fill the gap in tech talent by matching companies with trained individuals.
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