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6/26/2008
05:15 PM
Rob Preston
Rob Preston
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Down To Business: St. Louis Gets Serious About Tech Talent

Employers are regularly criticized for overstating the IT labor problem, or for doing little to rectify it. But give some credit where it's due.

There's been much acrimony, and a fair bit of navel gazing, nationally on the subject of attracting and retaining IT talent. Employers are regularly criticized--unfairly or not--both for overstating the problem and doing little to rectify it. But give some credit where it's due.

The St. Louis business community, having identified tech talent as a shared concern through local organizations such as the IT Coalition and CIO Board, last July launched a program called Greater St. Louis Works. The goal: Define the scope of the region's IT talent challenges and figure out ways to address them. The guiding principle: Regional economic development isn't just about dangling tax incentives and other subsidies in front of companies. It's increasingly about assuring local companies, and those considering moving in, that they'll have access to enough talented tech professionals, so critical to driving every business.

The program's organizers, led by the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association (RCGA), spent the first six months hosting a series of "knowledge exchanges," bringing together 50 to 100 people at a time from a cross section of local constituents: IT organizations, vendors, and professional associations; staffing and HR groups; colleges and universities; and state and local government agencies. Subjects still under discussion include enhancing workforce diversity, improving communications, charting career paths, and helping those who've been outsourced or laid off to bounce back. For a deep dive into what the organizers have learned and now propose to do, encapsulated in a 50-page report, go to www.greaterstlouisworks.org, where you'll also find sections on hot jobs and skill sets, career resources, and more.

"Our biggest challenge was resisting the temptation to jump to 'solutions' before we had taken adequate time and attention to understand the problems," says Blair Forlaw, executive director of Greater St. Louis Works, which hosted a half-day conference of about 200 people (including yours truly) on June 20 to rally and educate the local business technology community. "Many people came forward very early in our process saying that they knew exactly what St. Louis needs, and it was a challenge to keep them positively engaged even while we weren't willing to drop everything else and embrace the first tempting ideas we heard."

Tech employers also have to get used to collaborating with companies competing for many of the same job candidates. For instance, the RCGA arranged for executives with a major New York-based financial services company to meet with area CIOs to discuss the tech talent pool, as the financial company is considering relocating some of its IT operations to St. Louis to cut costs. On the surface, it's not in those CIOs' interests to open their arms to a new IT organization intent on recruiting engineers, database administrators, system architects, networking specialists, and project managers. But if the St. Louis area is to grow into anything resembling an IT hub, the program's organizers reason, it had better rise above parochial rivalries.

No one's saying that Greater St. Louis Works is a shining success; it's still in its early days. The program got off the ground a year ago with a $500,000 grant from the Missouri Division of Workforce Development, and the organizers have applied for a second half-million dollars to keep it going.

Money goes only so far. Will St. Louis area employers, vendors, staffing firms, colleges, and government agencies stay as focused on IT development in a year, two years as they are today? Will they continue to cooperate with one another, especially if the area's pool of about 50,000 IT pros doesn't fill up despite their efforts? And can a local community really do much to tackle broader talent issues such as baby boomer retirement, disillusionment with the IT profession amid offshoring and industry consolidation, and a U.S. culture that tends to value liberal arts and business schooling over math, computer science, and engineering?

You gotta start somewhere.

Rob Preston,
VP and Editor in Chief
rpreston@techweb.com

To find out more about Rob Preston, please visit his page.

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