Expanding the Local Talent Supply Requires Competitors to Collaborate
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I went to school in Ithaca, a beautiful city in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York with top-notch universities, but little other infrastructure to attract and grow a highly skilled workforce. After college, most of the top students in my class did what many top students from around the country do: They went to New York City to get a job. But what if more of us were tempted to stay because well-regarded companies decided to put down roots and connect with the community and the universities? There is no doubt that the complexion of upstate New York would begin to change.
This same scenario plays out in cities across the country. Cities want the “big tech company” regardless of whether their local ecosystem is prepared; big companies want the best talent and don’t want to look too far to find it; and workers are eager to upskill, but many don’t want to have to uproot to large coastal cities to get a job. The result of this misalignment? Job openings outnumbered unemployed Americans by more than one million last year, with many employers citing difficulty in finding highly skilled talent.
So how do we overcome the finger pointing and start to chip away at these entrenched issues? Sometimes the most effective answers are the simplest. In this case, we must encourage stakeholders in city government, the c-suite and educators at the university level to find common ground and work together. In fact, there are flickers of what I like to call competitive collaboration -- where each stakeholder is both competing to win and collaborating with partners in order to maximize impact -- emerging all over the country, providing a potential model for regions beyond New York and its cohort.
In many communities, the university provides grounding -- with the goal of attracting students at its core, it is naturally invested in the success of a city. Today, that local community outreach isn’t enough. The increasing demand for highly skilled tech talent has prompted the most progressive institutions to create curriculums that meet the needs of local workers who are eager to upskill.
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In Charlotte, the University of North Carolina’s Coding Boot Camp forged a relationship with the Bank of America, hiring 22 graduates in the past two years. Likewise, leaders at the University of Maryland are working closely with local governments to create a zone called the Discovery District that will include research firms and start-ups. And beyond just these examples, I’ve observed more and more schools prioritizing support systems to help students well beyond graduation.
Cities are also recognizing that they can’t go it alone if they want to improve quality of life to attract and retain residents. Another Maryland example, this time Baltimore -- a city that has long been looking to jumpstart its economy -- has created grassroots STEM programs and AI centers to create a skilled labor force that matches the economic needs of its community. And on a macro level, just last week, the National League of Cities announced $100 million in local partnerships -- more than 50 cities, ranging from rural townships and college towns, to major metros, as well as over 200 local partners, are announcing programs that will support young businesses and foster STEM education and workforce training.
Baltimore is hoping that these efforts to upskill its workforce will attract companies to the area. But it’s already happening elsewhere. If we look to Chicago, we can see that Boeing is creating its own pipeline of talent by offering a host of internships and programs geared towards STEM students based in the city’s metro area. And in Austin, Dell remains one of the region’s largest employers and among the prominent destinations for computer science students and developers, employing more than 13,000 people from the greater Austin area.
In order to foster a true ecosystem of innovation in communities across the country, this concept of competitive collaboration needs to take hold, with each stakeholder working to continuously evolve and match the pace of innovation. It will result in improved bottom lines for employers, renewed credibility for universities, and a better quality of life for the communities touched. I believe that the future of building strong innovation economies across the entire country depends on it.