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Talking talent, and why Austin companies can’t find enough workers

Friday, July 27, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

On top of complimentary food, coffee and other treats, music rooms for relaxing, and other perks typical of the Silicon Valley digital life, Austin-based job search firm Indeed has had to become something of a transit provider while trying to remain attractive for potential employees.

With complimentary rides on the Chariot ride-share service, a company car pool program and an aggressive work-from-home furlough program, Indeed’s Manager of Talent Attraction Kevin Womack said transit and location variables are just two of the factors the company is trying to manage in the coming years as it plans to grow its local workforce to 5,000 employees from its current headcount of 2,000.

Add in a growing wait time and difficulty with hiring foreign workers for technical jobs and the frustration grows, a feeling discussed in depth Wednesday during an Urban Land Institute Austin member breakfast that focused on Austin’s shortage of talent.

“Immigration policies have impacted the duration to hire someone through H-1B visas, and due to some of the rhetoric, it’s gotten harder to get someone started on an H-1B once it’s filed,” said Womack, one of three panelists discussing the topic. “We have to wait for it to go through, which makes the start date become something that happens at an extended level. Due to that we have hiring managers unwilling to wait that duration, but we don’t have local or other resources to fill that gap.”

Recent data show Austin has 42,000 job openings and only 36,000 people seeking employment, which represents an unemployment rate of around 3 percent. The so-called skills gap has become so chronic that local economist Angelos Angelou has stated in recent business forecasts that hiring problems are starting to become a threat to the area’s ongoing economic growth.

Filling that gap through improved training programs is the main responsibility of the other two panelists: Workforce Solutions Capital Area CEO Tamara Atkinson and Garrett Groves, vice president of business and industry partnerships for Austin Community College.

Groves said higher education institutions like ACC, which has 70,000 students per year across all its campuses, have had to work with companies such as Samsung to design hybrid apprenticeship programs that follow a more European model so new, young hires are guaranteed to get the skills they need.

“It used to be as education providers we did our best job to train talent, give them the skills they required, and then almost dumped them in a large workforce talent pool and our job was done,” he said. “The days of train and pray are over. We’re not allowed to train individuals and then think we’ve done our job and never have to leave our classrooms.”

The Wednesday session featured plenty of discussion about how real estate plays a part in the talent issue, with business locations and the proximity of housing to transit playing a role in worker availability. The training required for the skilled trades that are needed in manufacturing and construction also has an impact on the real estate market, with Atkinson explaining that a lack of awareness about the kinds of jobs available in skilled trades causes fewer enrollees in training programs.

Atkinson’s agency, which provides funding to existing successful job training programs in the Austin area, is one year into working behind the Master Community Workforce Plan that was created to emphasize training and job placement in the fields of health care, information technology and advanced manufacturing.

When talk turned to trying to forecast the skills needed for jobs in the 2030 workforce, Atkinson said she and others in the job placement world have to fight something of a two-front battle to train for today while preparing for the future.

“We have both an immediate demand and pressure to do long-term thinking,” she said. “Right now in Austin we’ve got hundreds of job seekers in our offices meeting with our staff looking for jobs today, so they don’t care about the jobs of 2030 … they need a job today to support themselves and their family.

“We have a both/and approach. It’s ensuring we’ve got the right efficient data-driven systems today to connect people to jobs, and it is working very closely with industry leaders and researchers to look at what skills will be in demand in the future.”

Photo by Adriano Aurelio Araujo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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