If you build it?

Nashville’s newest corporate citizen brings with it renewed questions about the size of the region’s technology workforce

Talk to anyone who’s been reading about technology in Nashville in the past couple of weeks and you’re likely to find that the freshest subject on their minds is the planned downtown headquarters of tech support player IQT. Much of what makes that news so exciting is the fact IQT plans to create 900 new tech-related jobs in Nashville over the next five or so years.

But here’s the rub: Talk to anyone who’s been watching technology in Nashville in recent years and they’ll pause to wonder where the workers to fill those jobs are going to come from.

Prior to the IQT announcement, the Nashville Technology Council was already releasing quarterly reports on a large number of open tech jobs in Middle Tennessee. In May it reported 1,161 technology-related job openings in the region. With IQT, that hole nearly doubles.

“I think we’re definitely making some pretty good inroads on the training front,” said outgoing Tech Council President Tod Fetherling. “But there are simply not enough people in the pipeline at the moment.”

There can be no question — technology in Nashville is becoming big business. In the last two years, the board of the Tech Council has grown to more than 400 members and its revenue figures have more than doubled. Membership in the council is on the rise, and with the advent of the Nashville Entrepreneur Center and other entities such as JumpStart Foundry, there is a new, revitalized wave of entrepreneurial spirit sweeping the city, much of it technology-based.

Not surprisingly, as the number of technology dependent companies has grown, so too has the number of job openings at those companies. Unfortunately, Nashville does not presently have the workers to fill those jobs.

By and large, technology jobs are good ones. Because they’re highly skilled positions, they come with good pay.  As Fetherling said in an announcement earlier this year, Nashville had “1,000 open positions with 56% higher than the average salaries.” One would think that in a market with such a high demand for such workers, graduates would be streaming out of colleges and universities eager to fill those posts. Right now, according to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, they aren’t.

And according to a report from the University of Tennessee Center for Business and Economic Research, the number of graduates in computer related degree tracks amounts to roughly half of the present demand for graduates from Tennessee business.

But long-term solutions to the problem are currently taking shape and, in many cases, look to be accelerating.

One of the primary initiatives, now in its third year of operation, is the “Turning the Tide of Technology” (T3) program run in conjunction with various partners by the Tech Council. The program’s goal is to encourage students as young as the primary school level to become interested and better skilled in technology-related fields.

Glenn Acree, a professor at Belmont University and part of the T3 initiative, said that his school has seen real progress since the program began. To him, the heart of T3’s origins was to begin a conversation between the technology industry and the higher education world. Prior to that, he says,  “We didn’t know each other.”

The number of Belmont students working in degree that could lead them to jobs in tech fields such as computer science, mathematics, and design communications is on the rise, Acree said. Bolstering this progress has been a mentorship program enacted by various T3 schools, which pairs students with industry players who helping them land internships, learn about various opportunities, and so forth.

About the various programs involved in the initiative, Fetherling has said, “We must have an active and engaged pipeline of high school students and college graduates to meet the current and future workforce demands for technology workers.”

For now, looking elsewhere

For now, in the short term, Nashville is largely importing new talent. Most tech hires around town are either imports or existing talent poached from another local tech player.

One mid-range solution some groups are trying is retraining — particularly those members of the workforce who have been laid off during the recession. Many of those programs are offered through the Tech Council and business incubator JumpStart Foundry, which help grow technology skills for entrepreneurs and the workforce.  Attendance at those conferences and camps has been strong.

Fetherling also pointed out that the Tech Council is currently working on a broader, more comprehensive marketing program to try and attract talent from places that may have a dearth of jobs. So far, such efforts have been smaller and guerilla in style.

One such example took place recently at CMA MusicFest and Bonnaroo, where Tech Council “street teams” walked around wearing bright yellow "Nashville is hiring" T-shirts with QR codes (bar codes that can be scanned using some mobile applications). Those codes directed individuals to a specific Tech Council Web page where they can enter their email addresses to get information about the Middle Tennessee jobs.

Fetherling said the response to those teams was strong and that the Tech Council is in the process of following up with the concert attendees and others who took advantage of the opportunity.

For the time being though, Nashville is stuck with a gap and companies are left to fight for what little talent they have.

To illustrate that point, one technology player with whom NashvillePost.com spoke relayed an anecdote about what he called a not-uncommon hiring situation these days. A project manager — who was, all agreed, competent but far from transcendent in his abilities — became the subject of a rather fierce bidding war between two companies here in town. In Silicon Valley, the observer opined, where the tech talent grows on trees but the jobs do not, the manager in question would have been lucky to find work. Here, he was a fought-over commodity.

Another, in the technology-staffing sector, notes a slight conundrum posed by the glut of jobs. Many firms, he said, are reluctant to be too vocal about the job gap because it tends to bring waves of unqualified applicants. In one case, a job listing was posted for a “project manager” in the tech space. The recruiter was heartened to see the dozens of responses until realizing that a large portion of the applicants had misread the listing, believing it to be a call for “project managers” in the construction business.

In times when jobs are, in general, in short supply, it can be a difficult process to weed out the truly qualified when one’s own sector has jobs aplenty. So, many think we have to continue with the basic blocking and tackling of creating a workforce: Sowing the seeds for future growth in education, making increased efforts at recruiting new talent into the area, and doing what we can to retool the out-of-work but trainable segments of the workforce.

Now, as the Tech Council looks to find a replacement for Fetherling, who will depart his position on July 1, one of the major charges that his successor will undertake is creating continued growth of the technology workforce here in town. As Nashville has experienced — and hopefully will continue to experience — tremendous growth in the number of national and international technology players eyeing our town as a possible regional or central home, it will be a primary concern of the council to continue taking steps to help meet that demand with our supply of skilled labor.

If Nashville fails, and our workforce can’t meet the demands of companies like IQT, then in time such economic development wins may become sadly scarce.