All tech companies in the United States will face a near constant need for software developers over the next decade. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 24 percent growth in the industry by 2026, which is an even faster ascent than other tech-related career fields. But the traditional employment pipeline in Middle America — places like St. Louis, Fargo, and Milwaukee — isn’t producing nearly enough candidates for local organizations. Additionally, promising recent graduates are likely to be lured away to more vibrant tech hubs.
The deck is stacked against Heartland companies. In order to compete in the future, they’ll have to hire tech employees at the same rate as companies with bigger talent pipelines and more resources to recruit and train candidates.
Problems in the pipeline
The traditional infrastructure for employee recruitment doesn’t work for filling tech jobs.
Take St. Louis as a case study. Tech jobs employ more than 145,000 people in the region, and the sector grew at a rate of 11.2 percent from 2012 to 2017 (all other industries had a 10-year growth rate of 1 percent). Over the past year, there were more than 17,000 tech job openings in St. Louis alone.
Despite this huge appetite for tech candidates, the region’s talent pipeline looks meager by comparison. Saint Louis University is one of the region’s largest four-year colleges, and according to the university’s Department of Computer Science, approximately 135 computer science majors are currently enrolled.
At St. Louis’ prestigious Washington University, 642 students are earning either a bachelor’s degree or second major in computer science — but only about 28 percent of all Washington University students stay in the St. Louis metro area after graduation.
As a result of this talent shortage, the problems we see in tech hiring become even more pronounced in the Heartland than they are in Silicon Valley. Tech is risk-averse in its hiring practices, as evidenced by the industry’s adoption of both deeply technical and time-consuming skills testing, as well as soft-skill interviewing practices designed to find the ever-elusive “cultural fit.”
These lengthy hiring processes have created a 51-day hiring cycle for the IT industry in the United States and Canada — one of the longest of any industry — and the problem has become progressively worse. The average vacancy for a job in the industry has risen from a low of around 19 days in 2009 to nearly 46 days.
In cities with more job candidates, a “hire slow, fire fast” approach won’t hurt a company much. But in cities with limited talent, you run the risk of seeing candidates lured away by a quicker offer if you don’t speed things up. If you need to hire hundreds of developers in a relatively short time, you can’t afford to string candidates along while you decide whether they’re perfect fits.
Again, these aren’t just problems with the tech hiring process in Middle America — companies in Silicon Valley are also far from efficient in their interview processes. But the lack of candidates produced by traditional talent pipelines in noncoastal cities means that companies here are disproportionately affected by these flaws. Unless you rethink your hiring strategy entirely, you risk falling behind your competition even more in the future.
How Heartland companies can get ahead
1. Expand your talent horizons.
It’s definitely possible to hire developers quickly and keep pace with companies in bigger tech markets. The first step is collaborating with local organizations facing the same problem.
First, are you looking for candidates in the right places? You probably won’t find many nontraditional candidates with a LinkedIn search, but you can discover them through word-of-mouth networks. Chi Tech Diversity is one great example. This Chicago-based group runs a Slack channel to connect diverse tech communities, and it’s also available to local tech companies seeking a diverse applicant pool. Companies can post about job openings, share references, or spread the word about potential opportunities. Another is Pride IN Tech — an Indianapolis-based networking group for LGBTQ tech professionals and allies.
Heartland companies can do the same kind of networking over Facebook groups, Slack channels, and similar social platforms or by attending or hosting networking events. By leveraging community connections and expanding your reach to nontraditional talent pools, you’ll offer more people a chance at success.
2. Train for the future.
It seems alarmingly simple that the trick to hiring developers faster is to, well, hire developers faster — but this actually represents a fundamental shift that companies need to make. Rather than waiting for the perfect fit, you should be getting as many hardworking, motivated people through the door as possible and then training them to be perfect fits.
Here in St. Louis, we’re using apprenticeship tracks to help onboard potential employees for careers in tech. Targeted programs like these let job candidates forgo coding tests and long interviews — which might only be vaguely related to the work they’ll be doing — and rely instead on crucial on-the-job training.
Want to go a similar route? Develop an internal curriculum to help new recruits master the skills you’re looking for and have seasoned employees design and administer training and answer questions. You’ll get people in the door faster and build on the foundational skills they do have.
Coastal cities have a talent-pool advantage, but there’s a clear path forward for Heartland companies. By creating opportunities for new candidates and rethinking onboarding and training, you’ll make the most of the tech hiring rush.
Jeff Mazur is the executive director for LaunchCode, a nonprofit organization aiming to fill the gap in tech talent by matching companies with trained individuals.