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IT Jobs: Hiring Strategies For Sweet Home, Chicago

Chicago's not Silicon Valley or New York -- and many people like it that way. Recruiters and hiring managers in Chicago share creative strategies to attract and retain top talent.

EHR Jobs Boom: 8 Hot Health IT Roles
EHR Jobs Boom: 8 Hot Health IT Roles
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Write down a list of major US technology hubs and you would probably start with the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley and work your way down from there: New York's Silicon Alley, the DC metropolitan area's mass of federal agencies and contractors, Seattle, Austin, Boston, and so on.

It would probably be a while before you jotted down Chicago. It's not exactly a small town, but the Windy City's not often thought of as a tech hotspot either. Plenty of tech and Internet firms call the Chicago area home, though, from Groupon to Hostway to CDW, not to mention Fortune 500 concerns like McDonalds, Allstate, and Walgreens. Yet recruiters and executives there say geography can play a factor when trying to lure the best and brightest IT pros, whether fresh-faced graduates or seen-it-all veterans, to the shores of Lake Michigan.

Some audience housekeeping first: If you think the IT talent shortage is a load of you-know-what, you should probably stop reading now. All three executives we spoke with say their underlying challenge is finding the right talent, period.

"There's a shortage across the whole United States when it comes to tech talent, and I don't think Chicago's any different," says Chris Jenkins, HR director at kCura, in an interview.

[For more advice on recruiting top new talent, see IT Jobs: How To Hire New Grads.]

kCura's been on a hiring binge. The e-discovery software firm hired 153 people last year and Jenkins expects a similar total of new employees by the end of 2014. The firm has already brought 83 new full-time employees on board this year. Its staff will soon cross the 400-person mark. More than 70% of kCura's hires this year have had some sort of technology function. That reflects the overall staff DNA, which is 65-70% technical in nature.

Attracting tech talent to Chicago -- and keeping homegrown talent home -- has gotten easier lately, according to Jenkins, thanks to increased investments from large companies and startups alike. But the Midwest region can add obstacles to an already challenging recruiting and retention landscape.

Campus recruiting is an enormous part of kCura's HR strategy, and Jenkins gives high marks to the University of Illinois's engineering and computer science programs, for instance. At least 90% of kCura's campus hiring takes places within a three-hour drive of Chicago, which includes a wealth of universities. Part of the pitch must address geography, because many of the top graduates there decided long ago it was Silicon Valley or bust. Trying to change their minds is a bit like trying to persuade an aspiring filmmaker not to move to Los Angeles.

(Image: Eric Ward on Flickr)
(Image: Eric Ward on Flickr)

"We spend a lot of time trying to convince students to stay in the Midwest; a majority of them do go out to the Bay Area," Jenkins says. "We try to get them [to our offices], we try to get them on a tour, we try to get them meeting our engineers, seeing the culture, and do whatever we can to get them to stay in the Midwest. But that is a struggle with students -- they might just want to move out of the Midwest for a couple of years and give it a shot."

IT jobs site earlier this year noted that while IT talent wars are fought coast-to-coast, "recruiters and hiring managers are now suggesting that the Midwest is the toughest region for recruiting technology professionals."

Gabe McDonald, branch manager in the IT division of Chicago-based recruiting firm Addison Group, says the problem has been compounded by companies finally kicking off technology projects that were mothballed during the economic downturn. As a result, everyone's looking to staff up at the same time.

"If one client needs a Java developer, there are likely six to seven other firms within the Chicago area all looking for the same skill set," McDonald says via email. The recruiter added that employers looking to scrimp on salary or unwilling to make rapid hiring decisions are the ones likely to lose out on in-demand talent. "These developers and engineers go quickly, so hiring managers need to determine exactly what they’re looking for and be ready to pull the trigger when they find it."

Jonathan Ozeran, VP of product at mobile health startup Zest Health, agrees the Chicagoland hiring picture is competitive. The firm's current and future hiring plans essentially read like a list of negative-unemployment job categories: mobile development, data science, software engineering, and so forth. Yet he sees Zest Health's location as a plus.

"Being in Chicago is an advantage for us," Ozeran says in an interview, crediting the company's heavy involvement in the growing tech and healthcare entrepreneurship communities there as the primary

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Kevin Casey is a writer based in North Carolina who writes about technology for small and mid-size businesses. View Full Bio

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User Rank: Ninja
5/10/2014 | 1:15:13 AM
Re: Midwest Tech
interesting to know... thanks for sharing...
User Rank: Author
5/8/2014 | 12:34:35 PM
Midwest Tech
Full disclosure: I went to college in the Chicago area, so I have a fondness for it. We've profiled other companies in the Midwest facing talent challenges; Chicago isn't alone. I like the "make everyone a recruiter" advice mentioned here. The often un-mentioned super power these companies have is that many people (shhhh) like living in the Midwest...even before you throw in Chicago pizza. Many midwestern CIOs have learned to tell that story to possible recruits.
Lorna Garey
Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
5/8/2014 | 12:34:25 PM
Cost of living
One would think the cost of living in Silicon Valley would offset much of the salary boost. What you can buy in Chicago for $400K would cost a million in SV. However, I notice no one mentioned the brutal winters!

How long until tech companies buy and renovate downtown loft buildings a la the "artist community" model and offer to house programmers? 
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