Cleveland tech companies search for creative ways to fill talent gap

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Tech jobs are sizzling in Northeast Ohio, says OHTec director Brad Nellis.

Small and mid-sized companies are hot on the trail of software developers experienced in using Java or Microsoft's .Net framework. Larger firms, meanwhile, are smoldering for network help to ensure their servers remain active.

Of almost 100 local IT companies polled for OhTec's October 2014 quarterly industry report, three-quarters of respondents reported they were planning to increase technical staff within the next 12 months.

However, while demand for skilled programming talent remains hot, its limited supply locally has cooled prospects for a large-scale tech revival in Northeast Ohio, note industry leaders.
<span class="content-image-text">Brad Nellis</span>Brad Nellis 
"It's very tough right now," says Nellis. "There's nowhere near enough talent to go around."

Cleveland-area companies searching for programmers to code that interactive website or new phone app are responding to the deficit through creative recruitment and training means, while organizations that support tech-based job growth are spearheading grassroots efforts to produce a regional pool of potential hires.

"A magic bullet does not exist," says Nellis. "Companies have to take a wide approach and engage talent however they can."

Rise in Demand

The demand for technical know-how, especially in the area of software, is unprecedented in the near decade OHTec has been conducting its industry survey, Nellis says. Four years ago, 11 percent of participating small firms were generating at least $5 million in annual revenue, a figure that now stands at 22 percent.

In terms of employment, OhioMeansJobs was advertising over 1,800 positions for web developers in Northeast Ohio as of the beginning of June.  These mid- to high-salary offerings include jobs as web programmers as well as software and application developers.

Nationwide, the economy is adding about 138,000 jobs in computing each year, while the nation's colleges produce approximately 40,000 computer science graduates, according to, a group trying to expand computer science education in schools. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a national 20 percent employment uptick for web developers by 2022, a demand largely driven by the growing popularity of mobile devices and e-commerce.

Nellis says Cleveland-based IT employers must become more resourceful in order to fill the gaps within their technical ranks, particularly as the economy improves to a point where people are not looking to migrate from good jobs.

Some businesses are hiring recruiters to comb LinkedIn for particular skills sets in the search for "passive" job candidates. The NRP Group, a property management company that requires technical expertise for its various career opportunities, will have recruiters pass LinkedIn profiles onto hiring managers. Those managers will then cold call the most attractive would-be applicants.

Other companies have increased pay for internal referrals, which gives employees a little extra incentive to recommend a new hire, Nellis says.

Companies Getting Creative

Hyland, creator of Onbase, has hired nearly 40 software developers so far this year and has plans to add another 30 before the end of 2015. Most will engage programming languages like C# and Java to help build OnBase, an enterprise content management software product created by the Westlake company.

Hyland senior recruiter Becky Blasius does not expect the search for additional programmers to be as easy as it was five years ago. Increased competition and a paucity of local computer science graduates has led the company to shift its recruitment techniques, she says.

Though social media is a common attraction tool for many companies, Hyland likes to meet candidates through career fairs and other networking events. The company also hosts on-site training sessions like SQL Saturday for those who want to learn about this technology.

About 90 percent of the firm's software creation roles are entry level, with starting salaries ranging from $50,000 to $60,000.  Most of this talent is found locally, either through nearby universities or programs like Akron's Software Craftsmanship Guild, a boot camp for computer coders.

"We want to keep Hyland a Northeast Ohio company," says Blasius. "This can be tricky when there's talent that wants to go to California and elsewhere."

With many highly sought recruits leaving for Silicon Valley, Cleveland companies must offer enticements beyond the monetary, Blasius says. Hyland puts an emphasis on a challenging work environment buoyed by onsite training, mentorships, and potential for personal and professional development.
<span class="content-image-text">Insivia CEO Andy Halko</span>Insivia CEO Andy Halko 
Rampant competition has had an impact on the growth prospects of smaller tech companies as well. A few years back, Insivia CEO Andy Halko would get reams of resumes just from having the name of his business-to-business strategic marketing and sales agency out in the public. Not anymore.

"We're always looking to hire in the space, it's just that [tech jobs] are the hardest thing to hire right now," says Halko.

Today, the company founder and his lead developer are proactive in contacting candidates directly via LinkedIn, hunting down folks who are hip to coding out a website or managing integrations between e-commerce platforms. Increased flex time and a collaborative environment are among the incentives Insivia uses to draw new code wranglers.

The tech side of Insivia's 20-person staff is expected to have a marketing mindset even as it spends most of its day interpreting data, notes Halko. This word is further spread through online Meetup groups, word of mouth, Facebook ads, and a refurbished career section on the Insivia website. The company has used outside recruiters in its hiring process, a strategy with about a 50 percent success rate.

"As a marketing firm we have to create strategies to bring on employees," Halko says. "You have to be proactive."

Halko, who moved his company in 2012 from the Flats to a 6,000 square-foot space in the Agora Theatre complex in Midtown, understands the difficulty of attracting A-list talent happily entrenched in well-paying cultures. For a company the size of Insivia, its potential that can be a driver in the modern innovation economy.

"Even if you can't find an A-player, you can find a coachable B-player who has the ability to be just as good," says Halko.

Using Cool Tools and Every Resource

Over the last two years, thunder::tech, a Midtown marketing agency that provides services in web, graphic design, and interactive media, has brought in 17 new personnel, including software engineers and coders.

Founder Jason Therrien throws a wide net to find talent, hiring former interns in addition to people transitioning from other industries. A portion of the company's 50 employees come from neighboring regions, including western Pennsylvania.

Referrals are Therrien's strongest weapon in a tough market. That means investing in employee education while keeping the business on the cutting edge of innovation. Therrien points to the recent purchase of a 3D printer as a reasonable investment that nonetheless gets the word out about the company's brand and lures talent that wants to be at the crest of a tidal wave of new tech.

"Everyone talks to their friends," Therrien says. "You have to build a reputation over time because there are no quick fixes."

Education and Training are Keys

Generating a local pipeline of web developers would potentially pull more people into the new economy, says Matthew Fieldman, who joined the Manufacturing Advocacy & Growth Network's (MAGNET) senior management team earlier this year as vice president of external affairs.

Fieldman is in the process of launching a coding school for Cleveland's inner-city youth. Called Cleveland Codes, the low-cost camp would skill up students for ground level coding careers that don't require a four-year computer science degree (a similar program named We Can Code IT that operates out of LaunchHouse held its first boot camp in March).

The youthful labor source would be trained over a six-month period via curricula common throughout the national software bootcamp movement, says Fieldman. Classes would be financed by partner companies and philanthropies at approximately $10,000 per student.

"Employers are already paying that amount to recruiting companies to get people to move here," Fieldman says.

The program founder envisions graduating 40 students annually into coding jobs paying an average salary of $50,000.  Accessible employment for disadvantaged youth is more than viable, Fieldman believes, a model proved out by his co-founding of Edwins Restaurant and Leadership Institute, an upscale restaurant that trains and employs the formerly incarcerated.

As for Cleveland Coders, Fieldman hopes to launch the enterprise next spring, pending the hire of a lead instructor with coding experience. "Cleveland can be a model for boot camps that are accessible to all people," he says.
Cuyahoga Community College is one of the area universities doing its part to reverse the talent shortfall. Over the last three years, Tri-C revamped its web and interactive media program to match industry needs. Led by assistant professor of visual communication and design Sarah Morgenstein, the class offers design and coding skills leading to an associate's degree or one-year certificate.

A curriculum meshing visual communication theory with technical knowledge is unique to Northeast Ohio, maintains Morgenstein. "Most people will go the IT route to study computer science, and pick up the design piece on their own," she says.

Grads of the program are being prepared for front-end web development as well as more traditional web design. Morgenstein's charges have moved into entry-level work at Sherwin-Williams and Rosetta, with duties that include translating web mockups to HTML. Though HTML is relatively easy to learn, it can be a powerful tool for graduates hungry for work.

"Our students are well-equipped to enter the workforce at the ground floor," says Morgenstein.

Fieldman of MAGNET expects the industry's across-the-board hiring to continue as high-tech innovation gets integrated into all facets of business. With an assertive push toward training and education, Northeast Ohio can be a hotbed for a new era of technology jobs.

"Until we as a community get together and say we need to aggressively train people for web development jobs, it's not going to happen," Fieldman says. "Somebody's got to own this."

This story was made possible through a partnership with Cuyahoga Community College.

Douglas J. Guth
Douglas J. Guth

About the Author: Douglas J. Guth

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to being senior contributing editor at FreshWater, his work has been published by Crain’s Cleveland Business, Ideastream, and Middle Market Growth. At FreshWater, he contributes regularly to the news and features departments, as well as works on regular sponsored series features.