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St. Louis wants to change how and where companies get their tech talent

Supplied by Cortex
Cortex Innovation Community
The Cortex Innovation Community Building on Duncan Avenue in St. Louis. Cortex recently secured $7 million from the State of Missouri to make free training, education and industry-recognized certification opportunities available to many local residents.

A collection of tech-focused organizations in St. Louis is pushing to transform how companies in the region find their talent amid a significant shortage of workers in the local tech sector.

The strategies focus both on filling thousands of open positions and bringing more racial and economic diversity into those roles, which are predominantly held by white men.

“There is an acute need to find a way for employers to have their tech talent needs met,” said Sam Fiorello, president and CEO of the Cortex Innovation District. “Frankly, the traditional way of hiring folks after a four-year degree from a university, it’s just not a big enough pipeline to meet those needs.”

Among cybersecurity positions alone, Fiorello estimates the St. Louis region is approaching nearly 10,000 openings. More broadly the region needs to double its tech workforce, adding 85,000 jobs in the sector, said Emily Hemingway, executive director of TechSTL.

“That’s a challenging, long-game initiative that we’re going to have to tackle,” she said. “When it comes to growing the economy here in St. Louis, it’s one of the most important pieces.”

New programs for training

In response, the region has secured funding to broaden the local pipeline of tech talent available to companies.

It includes $7 million that Cortex recently secured from the State of Missouri to make free training, education and industry-recognized certification opportunities available to many local residents.

Cortex won’t be leading courses but rather working to connect established training and educational resources, like those at Per Scholas, CyberUp and LaunchCode, with employers who need more tech talent, Fiorello said.

“(Cortex is) really good at inserting ourselves in an ecosystem and creating something in which the whole is worth more than the sum of its parts,” he said. “We will figure out a way to make the system run more smoothly, more efficiently.”

TechSTL also recently secured a $100,000 community enhancement grant from Verizon to develop foundational tech skills for some 10,000 residents and reduce the local digital divide in historically underserved areas of the region, Hemingway said. The funding pays for programming that trains how to utilize tools like email, Google Drive, Microsoft Office and other software that’s necessary for most jobs these days, she explained.

“The systems that we often take for granted, but if you’re not super comfortable with it, then you’re not going to lean into opportunities like LaunchCode and CyberUp,” Hemingway said. “That program is more about building tech confidence than tech competence.”

But it’s not enough to get more Missourians comfortable using technology or enrolled in accelerated training programs with tech certifications from Google, CompTIA or others; they also have to have local tech jobs they’re filling, Hemingway said.

Barriers remain for nontraditional talent

There are still barriers nontraditional candidates face when trying to break into the tech industry, said Charlie Mackey Jr., founding managing director of Per Scholas in St. Louis. The organization provides tuition-free tech training for adults locally and in communities across the country.

“We’re trying to help with the barriers that are kind of self-imposed,” Mackey said. “Many employers have a requirement for a four-year degree, but slowly and surely they’re realizing a four-year degree doesn’t mean everyone that comes out has the skills and ability to do the role.”

Programs at Per Scholas are full time, spanning about 13 to 15 weeks, and can cover the same amount of curriculum as a two-year degree, he said.

Mackey added that the people who go through this kind of accelerated program are often highly motivated and passionate about cultivating a career in tech. To him, it’s vital to bring employers into the classroom to give them the opportunity to observe students and ask them questions about what they’re doing or learning, Mackey said.

“It all starts with them seeing the talent in person,” he said. “We can talk about it all day, but seeing is believing.”

This strategy of exposure is helpful in reframing the value of nontraditional talent, but there’s still stigma, Mackey said.

“We are doing much better at getting rid of the perception of risk for these talented individuals, but we still have a lot of work to do,” he said. “That’s going to come from the employers engaging in these programs.”

LaunchCode CEO Julian Nicks argues employers also need to reframe how they think about the graduates from tech training organizations like his, which prioritize educating people from many backgrounds. In the past, hiring these candidates has been thought of as charity, he said.

“But this isn’t about charity,” he said. “At the end of the day, we have a critical issue facing technology: Jobs are growing way too quickly, and college pipelines aren’t expanding and creating talent pools fast enough.”

Nicks adds that tech bootcamps and other alternative training options aren’t novel anymore and have proven they can work to produce quality tech talent.

Mid-level or senior roles

Part of this transition means adjusting the expectations or requirements companies have typically had for roles beyond entry level, said Matthew Modica, vice president and chief information security officer at BJC HealthCare.

He points to a recent example in which the company was seeking a highly experienced candidate for a senior level role that manages users and their access to different internal systems. The position remained open for about 160 days, which is a long time, Modica said.

“It’s forever,” he said. “At 60 days we were starting to get worried just because we couldn’t find the right skillset, the right person willing to come in at the right money and all that kind of stuff for that position.”

Instead, Modica explained he decided to reframe his search to internal candidates who may not have met all of the posting’s requirements but could meet them with additional training or certification. And that’s what the company opted for in the end, he said.

“That actually opened up a lower-level engineer position,” Modica said. “That had us looking the same way: Can we take somebody who’s entry level and move them into that if they want to take the opportunity and have the attitude, aptitude, skills that they’re willing to invest and build out?”

This is a strategy Modica said has applied to other roles and job profiles, especially examining if those roles absolutely need a college degree or if relevant experience and certification requirements can suffice. This can help expand the potential pool of candidates, he added.

“I’m looking for usually a unicorn to fit all those requirements perfectly to fill that position; you’re never going to find that unicorn,” Modica said. “How do I adjust those expectations to be reasonable based on the candidate pool that’s available to eventually get where I need to go?”

Fiorello of Cortex wants to see more employers in the region take these kinds of steps and adds that his organization’s standing in the community makes it well positioned to help facilitate them.

“That brand gives us unique access to C-Suite folks to say, ‘We need to try something different, we can help you get your needs met in a different way,’” he said. “This is a change in mentality and a change in thinking.”

And it’s vital for community partners to be present to help make these changes easier to implement as well, Hemingway said.

“Unfortunately in the tech space, a lot of that responsibility has landed on the tech companies themselves,” she said. “The vast majority of trainings can be offered in the community to offload a lot of that cost and investment from companies.”

The biggest companies are going to find communities that help carry this burden, Hemingway said. Developing strong programs locally for St. Louis can contribute to its economic vitality, because it will push companies toward the region when they just as easily could go elsewhere, she said.

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.