Seattle’s Tech Job Crunch: How Long Can the Valley Invaders Poach from Microsoft, Amazon Before the Talent Well Runs Low?

3/28/11Follow @curtwoodward

Another month gone by in Seattle, and another Silicon Valley company has moved in to establish a beachhead for recruiting tech workers. And they all seem to say the same thing: This area is rich with talent.

That’s certainly true—not to mention cheaper, compared to the Bay Area. But all of those companies often wind up chasing the same pool of experienced workers—a pool that Washington state isn’t adding to fast enough by cranking out computer science graduates of its own.

It’s a situation that can’t be sustained if the region is to maintain its prominence in the tech world. And if it isn’t fixed soon, some worry that the mega-companies currently feeding the pipeline—namely Microsoft and Amazon—could tire of poaching and immigration woes and cut off the supply, establishing more satellite offices where the workers already live rather than investing a lot to recruit them to the Northwest and then lose them.

“They have to spend a lot of money to recruit talent around the world to come here,” says Eric Schinfeld, who works on regional economic development for the Prosperity Partnership. “If I’m Microsoft, how long do I want to subsidize everybody else stealing my employees?”

Here are the big numbers: In the second quarter of this year, state labor economists expect about 88,400 people in King County will be employed in computer science-related jobs. That figure is projected to rise to almost 95,000 by 2013, and climb to about 105,000 by 2018. Between 2013 and 2018, labor economists expect the number of job openings to average nearly 3,700 per year.

Washington’s colleges aren’t churning out enough grads to get those precious jobs. According to U.S. Department of Education statistics, fewer than 1,000 computer science degrees were granted to master’s and bachelor’s students in the 2008-09 school year across all colleges in the state—a positively middling performance. Washington schools ranked 23rd among states in producing computer science bachelor’s degrees, with 736, and 24th in master’s degrees, with 213. The state is getting beaten in those rankings not just by the usual suspects—California and Massachusetts—but also by states like Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri.

Meanwhile, the slow economic recovery is crimping our sales-tax dependent state budget, which means Washington’s almost entirely public university system is not likely to see large, sustainable additions in enrollment anytime soon. It’s ironic: The tech sector is robust, expanding, and pays well. But that economic performance doesn’t show up very well in the flow of money feeding educational growth, because Washington doesn’t have an income tax. So in some ways, the slower parts of the economy wind up holding back the pipeline of talent for the parts that are charging ahead.

Ed Lazowska, the the University of Washington’s Bill & Melinda Gates chairman in computer science, says the last sustainable increase in state spending for higher education enrollments was … Next Page »

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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  • cobs

    Yes, this article is interesting. However I don’t know if this is in fact really spin.

    As a grad of the university of washington cse program, and the lucky few to get in more than ten years ago, I have to say that yes its unfortunate that more uw students aren’t able to get in. Especially considering that most high schools don’t prepare their students with computer science courses most kids aren’t exposed to how interesting the field is.

    In my opinion, residents of the state who would have been interested in computer science are out in the cold and gives the advantage to the hungry h1-b visa types from other countries. Not that I am knocking them but it doesn’t seem to be a fair playing field for eager local kids.

    In addition, to add to this, a lot of tech companies in the area are very discriminating and it is not enough to just have a degree in cs from the uw. A lot of companies here have relationships with certain programs across the nation, e.g. mit, carnegie mellon, and waterloo (amazon does).

    So I think part of this “perceived shortage” is contributed by the fact that employers are being extremel picky/ unrealistic about job qualifications (and expecting tons of people to have e.g. 10 years C++ and 5 years experience with Python and 5 years of MySQL and experience with multithreading using pthreads – I mean who really has this?? Its ridiculous).

    UW does a good job of laying some of the fundamentals but it is really up to the student to really become proficient in any of the programming languages. And it takes years for anyone to really become good at any programming language, don’t be fooled by those learn java in 24 hours books..

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  • Aaron

    Interesting article. I feel like I’ve read this article 5 times over the last 10 years. Every year or two the newspaper or a magazine publishes an article about how hard it is to find programmers or other tech workers.

    It’s kinda like the shortage of lawyers. As a Feshman at university I didn’t  know I wanted to study engineering. I was thinking about law. So I listened to speakers from law firms and they all complained about how hard it was to find lawyers. I’ve kept up with it over 20 years and law firms still complain they can’t find people to hire.

    As a freshman, I misunderstood the problem. It’s not about a lack of law school graduates. It’s just that the kind of lawyers they wanted hire were in the top 10% of their class. Law firms were competing very hard for that percentile and it was (and still is) really hard to find those people. By definition, the candidate pool can never be larger than about 1 in 10 job seekers.

    Churning out more CS grads at the UW will not do much to alleviate the “tech crunch”. My experience trying to land a job at Amazon taught me about this. I studied up on Amazon before I interviewed there. Long ago Jeff Bezos told his people it is better to interview 20 people and hire no one than it is to hire 1 wrong person. That still permeates the culture. At Amazon, you have to make it through two separate phone screens were your knowledge of data structures, algorithms, puzzle solving ability, and maybe multi-threaded programming and OO design is tested. If you pass those, you get invited to a full day interview where the puzzles and tech questions get harder. Finally, a person called the “bar raiser” gives you the toughest interview of the day. The bar raiser is responsible for ensuring you are better than the average person currently employed by Amazon. Amazon wants to continually increase the level of talent in-house and they only hire people who can clear the “raised bar”. I’ve interviewed with Amazon three times. Twice I didn’t get past the first phone screen and only once I made it to the second phone screen.

     Tech companies aren’t just looking for people who know how to program. After all, there are plenty of people who know how to program. They are looking for the “bar raisers”. And indeed, those people have been very hard to find and will always be hard to find.

    (all typos and diction problems here are blamed on my iPhone)

  • Liz

    If Seattle is rich with talented tech people, then how is it so difficult to find a technical co-founder?

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