What is a city without the people who inhabit it? Be it a hamlet or metropolis, any center of living gets its soul from the individual humans who make it work. And when it comes to tech economies and entrepreneurship, people matter more than ever.
There is a huge shortage of technically skilled talent in this country, and that’s a major roadblock for cities looking to grow a tech scene. This report by D.C. venture capital fund and incubator 1776 makes the case that the presence of talent and educated individuals is one of the most important factors in an area’s success.
That brings us to my current city of residence, Tallahassee, Florida.
Tallahassee has no shortage of amazingly talented individuals. Our three major centers of higher education (Florida State University, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical, and Tallahassee Community College) bring thousands of highly energetic young faces into our town every year. The problem is that very few of them are sticking around after graduation. For tech businesses and startups in Tallahassee, talent acquisition and retention has become a major challenge.
There are several factors that play into this problem. One of them is cultural: students don’t see their college town as a place to lay down roots. Especially in Tallahassee where we have a huge student population but a much lower population aged 21-30, young graduates don’t view Tallahassee as a place to stay and start their careers. Part of that is based on limited opportunity. There are tech jobs here, but many students aren’t trained in the right skills or they’re being hired away by large corporations.
There’s also a visibility problem. The vast majority of students at FSU, FAMU and TCC fail to explore Tallahassee far beyond campus. The city is working on efforts to try to get students more involved in the greater Tallahassee area, but there’s a disconnect. Most students and new graduates just don’t know about opportunities that exist here beyond the university and the surrounding nightlife.
The final dimension of this talent quagmire seems to be an issue of compensation. A bit of controversy surrounds this particular issue, and local professionals are currently riled in debate over the solution. In order for talented individuals to stay in an area and contribute to an economy, they need the financial security to be able to do so. One problem that many students and graduates face is what I like to call the internship bubble.
Before you’ve developed the professional skills needed to excel in the workforce, internships are a great way to get a foot in the door. However, after many, many unpaid internships, some grads are finding themselves with sore toes. The value that interns can provide for a company can be substantial, but the compensation usually isn’t even close to being on par with the amount of work an intern gets done.
If a city is truly invested in creating a startup economy, its business leaders need to properly reward the talented individuals that it so desperately needs and relies on. Especially with technical talent, where hourly wages can climb high fairly early in one’s career, internships often aren’t worth it. When faced with a selection of unpaid or low-paid internships, it’s no wonder that talent often flees to more established areas where there is capital to spare.
In the end, the real problem comes down to capital (or lack thereof) required to properly reward talented graduates. It creates a bit of a catch-22, where businesses need talent in order to build revenue, but can’t do so without the revenue to begin with. That’s where investment and venture capital can play a huge role in building a startup ecosystem. As more individuals start to work jobs in an area, the economy grows and everybody does better. But these initial capital barriers are difficult to overcome.
In Tallahassee, efforts are being made to better meet the needs of local tech businesses. Our large public sector is engaged in recon to figure out what these businesses need, but the issue isn’t as much figuring out what they need, it’s figuring out how to fill the need, and fast. Whether that means engaging more local students, attracting talent from out of town, or building the infrastructure necessary to train our population, something needs to be done sooner rather than later to avoid a “fizzling out” of our tech and startup scene.