Utah's challenge: Matching tech talent with tech jobs

Published: Sunday, Oct. 6 2013 5:50 p.m. MDT

The tech industry is growing. But it's not clear if there are too few jobs or not enough workers.

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SALT LAKE CITY —For Sara Gomez, the United States is a land of opportunity.

She moved to the United States from Colombia in 2009 and is studying at Brigham Young University on a student visa. Gomez will graduate with a degree in economics in April. Currently employed with Goldman Sachs, Gomez hopes that she will be able to stay on with the company with the help of an H-1B visa. There are more opportunities for employment in the States than in her native Colombia, she said.

"You can graduate with a job and a really good wage or a fairly good wage," she said.

If her petition is granted, she will be one of the 65,000 people who are hired annually in the United States on an H-1B visa. H-1B visas are available for companies that want to hire a "foreign worker if a U.S. citizen or resident is not available," according to the H-1B application website.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is among those who seeks to expand the number of available visas to 115,000 annually, with the option to increase the capacity to a maximum of 300,000 annual visas if the economy necessitates.

Opinions as to the necessity of the visas and actuality of the shortage of workers are split.

The good news is that the tech industry is growing in Utah, according to Nic Dunn, public information officer for the Department of Workforce Services. According to the Department, the tech sector has grown at a rate of 5.8 percent over the past year, much higher than the overall Utah average of 2.7 percent growth.

"It's hard to tell whether we have too many jobs or too many job seekers in this field. But we can tell that the growth is good and the innovation is good."

Tech shortage

"I would say yes, we are experiencing a shortage," Chris Leonard agent care manager for Quomation, a company that creates software and cloud storage for insurance companies, said.

In 2012, they received 30 to 40 responses to their job advertisements. This year, they received five to 10 responses.

"Sometimes it does come down to the fact that we can't offer them a wage they'd be willing to accept," he said. The company is at the lower end of the pay scale in the industry, with entry-level positions ranging from $35,000 per year to $80,000 or $90,000, depending on experience.

The company has hired one worker using an H-1B visa and their last two hires came from out of state.

Karen Feinauer, administrative manager in the University of Utah School of Computing said she sees her students getting jobs. When they do turn jobs down, it is because of salary or because they've been hired elsewhere.

She said if there is a shortage, it is because schools are not educating "domestic students to go into our STEM programs."

Many of those who she has seen go through the Master's program are not from the United States. That has many asking, why train people in U.S. colleges and universities and then send them to other countries to become competitors?

This is the question that Orrin Hatch and tech industry leaders asked during a round table discussion in August.

"This is because of our own stupidity, and we're going to try and change that," he said during the discussion.

Representatives from companies such as Microsoft, Insidesales.com and Property Solutions said they could not hire skilled workers quickly enough.

This is something that Joe Sindad, career counselor and program manager at the University of Utah, has seen as well.

"My experience is — especially in computer science — there aren't enough candidates to fill all the positions," Sindad said.

Down in Utah County, recruits in the fields of information technology, information systems and electrical and computer engineering are doing similarly well, according to Jane Cunningham facilitator for the engineering recruiting services office at Brigham Young University.

"Our students don't seem to have a hard time getting jobs and retaining jobs," she said.

Bobby Swingler, a computer science major at Brigham Young University, exemplifies this.

"From my experience I've seen there is no shortage in the number of jobs in the tech industry," he said.

At BYU's STEM career fair on Sept. 26, he said he was constantly pulled aside by recruiters who saw that he was a computer science major.

"There's a shortage of skilled workers because they get hired so quickly," he said.

Students with jobs in these sectors often enjoy competitive wages:

One company, that didn't want to give away its competitive advantage, revealed that a new hire straight out of college could expect to earn about $70,000 per year; another, between $70,000 and $120,000. Companies on the lower end of the pay scale offered between $35,000 and $90,000 to begin and another between $50,000 and $75,000.

Are there enough workers?

Still, according to an April study published by the Economic Policy Institute, the tech industry in the United States has plenty of workers.

"Our review and analysis of the best available evidence indicates that the supply of STEM-potential and STEM-educated students has remained strong and appears to be quite responsive to standard economic signals of wage levels and unemployment rates," the study said.

For every two people who graduate from STEM programs in the United States, only one is hired into a STEM field, among other findings in the study.

It seems the only definite conclusion is that the tech industry is growing. Whether or not there is a shortage of skilled workers has yet to be seen.

"The short answer is there isn't really a way to look at the data and say definitively yes or no on that," according to Nic Dunn, public information officer for the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

To answer the question of whether or not there is a shortage of skilled workers in the tech industry, Dunn looked at the wage growth within the industry and a job vacancy study that indicated how long it took for employers to fill vacant positions. The higher the wages, the more likely it is that there is a shortage, he said.

"If a certain type of employee is in high demand, the wages will be higher for it."

Similarly, job vacancies that take longer to fill indicate a shortage as well.

Results were mixed. Wage growth indicated that tech wages are growing at a rate of 4.4 percent, he said, which is higher than the statewide average of 2 percent, which could indicate there is a shortage.

The job vacancy study showed that most employers in Utah are filling their positions in less than one month, which shows that there may not be a shortage.

"There's really no clear data driven way to say yes there is a shortage or no there is not a shortage," he said.

Job opportunities in any tech field are different depending on where one lives, he said, pointing to Utah County's tech boom.

Regardless of the job market, he said, networking is vital in securing a good job. In this case, he said, perhaps employers could network more efficiently to pull in job recruits.

The labor market is "tight," especially in computer science, according to Brett Gerlach, owner of Brevium, a company that develops software to help medical practices find patients that need to be seen.

"We do pay really well with excellent benefits," he said, and are able to staff the company of 13 fulltime and five parttime workers, but have had to resort to less conventional methods to recruit them.

One came by virtue of the company's location in Eagle Mountain. They realized many tech workers were commuting from Eagle Mountain for work, and decided to offer them jobs closer to home. Brevium has also set up shop across from BYU, pulling in interns and introducing them to the company culture early in hopes of retaining them.

"Without that internship it's really, really difficult to attract students," he said.

Email: wevans@deseretnews.com, Twitter: whitevs7

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