A Wasatch Front trade organization is considering targeting certain colleges with its marketing message as a way to help Utah technology companies grow and find the skilled workers they need.
Silicon Slopes, created eight years ago to help highlight Utah’s tech ecosystem, might develop a program to get the word out about Utah opportunities at the college level, perhaps focusing on 10 schools that would be good feeders into the state, according to Jordan Burke, director of Silicon Slopes and director of content and strategy at Domo, a business management platform company based in American Fork.
“The challenge is helping people realize that Utah is not just one company or another company. It’s a full, entire technology ecosystem,” Burke told the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) board at its most recent meeting.
If any new program is successful, it would help ease a major pain of many Utah tech companies: the lack of skilled talent to fill the approximately 15,000 open tech positions in the state.
“We don’t produce enough graduates. We don’t import enough people,” Burke said. “We have a severe demand for more and more technology talent, and this is one way we can address this, by helping people understand the richness of Utah and be able to attract and bring more people in.”
The recruitment and retainment of talent is among the organization’s top goals, and Burke said Utah has a shortage of engineers, software developers and other people with in-demand tech skills.
“The challenges across the United States, and this is not unique to the state of Utah, is finding people who have the right skills to build and grow companies,” he said.
Silicon Slopes is considering several options. “There’s no good answer,” Burke said. “People have been at this for decades and we’re still working at it.”
While some people in Utah are working on K-12 education and other options that could ease the problem perhaps a decade out, Burke said Silicon Slopes is focused on one to three years because of the current and pending short-term high talent demand. That’s why targeting university students makes sense.
One problem is that Utah universities graduate engineers who then leave to take jobs outside the state. But Burke said the disparity between salaries for software engineers that once existed when comparing Utah with Silicon Valley has dissipated. “So it’s just getting out that knowledge that, ‘Hey, I can build a thriving career here in the state,’” he said.
Getting out-of-state college students knowledge about Utah is important, he added, especially information about plentiful tech job options for workers coming into the state.
“One of the big benefits we’ve found with recruiting people from outside the state is helping them better understand that, ‘Hey, if I come and work for Company A, there are going to be 10 other companies that I could potentially go to down the road. That’s not saying I’m going to come here for a year and jump ship. That’s just saying that, hey, I can be able to grow my network here in the state,’” Burke said.
“That’s one of the challenges that we have when executives, especially senior executives, are coming here: ‘Am I going to be coming to join Domo or Ancestry or Vivint or Qualtrics or any number of companies, and am I going to have an option three years down the road once I go public and want to look for my next opportunity to be able to go somewhere else? Or am I going to have to pick up again and move back to San Francisco or New York or Chicago or Austin, Texas?’”
Among the information ammunition Utah has available is a lower cost of living and other worker advantages. For example, $400,000 will buy only 293 square feet of housing in New York City, 518 in San Francisco and 1,120 in Chicago, but nearly 3,000 square feet in Salt Lake City. Likewise, the average commute time in the Salt Lake City area is 21 minutes, compared with 31 in Chicago, 32 in San Francisco and 48 in New York City.
Silicon Slopes was created by Josh James, founder of Omniture and founder and current chief executive officer of Domo. Burke said that Utah’s technology ecosystem has experienced “a huge amount of progress” during the past decade. Many of the troubles getting venture capital firms to invest in Utah companies and other company-building woes have been addressed, leaving the state currently in the midst of a third wave of technology startups, he said.
Utah has about 4,400 tech companies that employ a total of 53,000 workers. The annual tech payroll is about $6.9 billion, which accounts for 14.3 percent of Utah’s total payroll despite being only 8.6 percent of the total workforce. Utah’s tech companies also raised $954 million in investment capital in 2014.
For its part, Silicon Slopes runs a website, produces weekly emails, operates social media channels, conducts private and public events and prints an annual calendar.
Mel Lavitt, the GOED board chairman, suggested that Utah’s tech companies could raise money for some sort of nationwide marketing campaign to address the talent shortage issue, which GOED could support.
“We’re working on the same problem,” he said. “I think we need to find a way to combine ourselves. … We have the data here. We have a great presentation. Now we need to get that out to people to understand Utah.”
Lavitt commended the work that Silicon Slopes has achieved already. “You’ve done a great job evangelizing the tech area of Utah,” he told Burke. “Silicon Slopes has gone from an idea a number of years ago to something really powerful.”