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Bolstering CT’s Technology Workforce

Yogi Berra is reported to have once said, “No one goes there any more, it’s too crowded!” If I may skip the humor and dryly parse his message, this is an ironic statement that comments on the way exclusivity can develop around certain kinds of successful systems, which may eventually lead to their failure.  It also describes the strange paradox that helps explain the Connecticut technology workforce situation today.

Everywhere I go in the state, people are asking how we can help them find good workers to fill key positions. From the financial services back offices in Stamford to fast growing software and advanced manufacturing shops up Route 8 and I-91, head hunting is a top concern. And yet, some graduate programs in engineering and software are under-subscribed and many mature skilled tech workers say they are now chronically under-employed.

Two fascinating newsletters by CTC member Skillproof about Connecticut and Metro New York are using data available on the web to give a very accurate, almost real time view of the shortages that now exist in various skill areas.  We also hear from financial backers that they are beginning to question the ability of gazelle firms – fast growing ones – to staff up here.

Is this a case of Yogi’s dilemma: Are people staying away and not getting training because they don’t feel they will be needed, or, are companies not creating new jobs here because they perceive there are not enough workers here?

Hundreds, if not thousands of systems engineers – Java, UNIX and SQL programmers – are being sought everyday in the region.  With over 200 firms in the Innovation Pipeline we can see a demand for a myriad of technology workers just around the corner. Will they be here when they are needed?

Bottom line: there are lots of opening for key IT and software jobs regionally and yet it doesn’t seem as if people are moving here with those skills. Already trained folks reports difficultly find good spots and students are not always getting the right training. Why these seeming paradoxes, and what can we do to turn this around?

One of our critical missions in the future is going to be to understand the role that complexities of the tech labor market is playing on the growth of our early stage companies and the R&D investments of our established firms.  One way is by matching people directly through the evolution of our Innovation Pipeline program and efforts such as our collaboration with the site. Another thrust will be to bring the needs of our members to the attention of curriculum designers and retraining programs to use the data to supply the right skill sets to the marketplace quickly.

There is a growing consensus that skilled labor availability will be a defining part of Connecticut’s growth profile. Our state labor department recently talked about demographic issues – the aging of the workforce – and the implications of the large discrepancies in the skills needed for the jobs being produced by the Connecticut economy.

While many jobs dominated the states actual growth, such as restaurant workers, sales clerks and home health care workers, the jobs that can power the economy are in financial services and technology. We know that technology firms will outsource a project or open a California office if they can’t build the right team here.

Rather than a shortage of exciting technology opportunities defining our labor market, we are moving to a situation where the shortage of qualified workers may crimp our ability to grow and keep the most attractive start-up firms.

The good news is that as with all markets, we ought to be able to solve this by getting the right information out there or enlarging our own educational programs. But, here is where we come back to Yogi. If talent or educators perceive that it is “too crowded” here, they “won’t come.”

So, while Connecticut may not be as fast growing as other parts of the country and we may not have the same “per capita” levels of innovation, the reason is not that we don’t have the potential, it may be we are lacking in some of the key ingredients – such as software and IT workers.

And yet, every time I write something like this, many of the highly skilled workers who lost positions in the 2001 business slowdown are still looking to get back to where they were.  Why is this? Are we not providing retraining – and is that even a question to ask at the rarified levels of technology skill sets.  Or, are firms somehow looking for skilled but junior workers to keep costs down?

Whatever is going on, in a small state that people enjoy living in, we need to change the reality and perception that we don’t have a balanced and dynamic labor force.  This is a role of both business and government and the analysis and questioning of complex and confusing data is a critical place to begin.

The creation of wealth and new equity may hinge on convincing many players in the Innovation Continuum that we can be a location that supports fast growing companies and opportunities for the country’s most talented workers. Perhaps nothing is more important to our continued growth as a technology center than to develop a dynamic labor market for technology.

Matthew Nemerson President & CEO Connecticut Technology Council

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