A Top Tech City, But Austin Needs More STEM Workers

7/11/13Follow @juliehuls

When President Barack Obama decided to use Austin, TX, as a platform to discuss the United States’ future in technology this May, it came as no surprise to those who call Austin’s technology sector home. Over the past decade, Austin has branched out beyond its Silicon Hills moniker to become the world’s preferred innovation destination. Everything from startup incubation and co-working centers like Capital Factory to industry standards like Applied Materials have settled on the shores of Lady Bird Lake, embedding technology so deeply into the city that much of the local economy now depends on it.

Perhaps due to the Texas tenets of self-reliance and entrepreneurship—and certainly due to a community predilection toward creativity and innovation—Austin’s technology sector is a varied and diverse industry. No longer a sleepy university town cranking out microchips, the capital of Texas is now home to everything from social media companies employing a handful of people, to life science innovators with global influence, to software giants with workforces consisting of thousands of employees.

As the president and CEO of the Austin Technology Council, it is perhaps no surprise that I would extol the powerful symbiosis between Austin and technology. We serve as the connection between the private and public sectors; the council is where research and development intersects with innovation and creation. Given this, we recently sought to do some research into just how important technology is to the Austin economy.

While Austin’s cultural and lifestyle attributes are important to its development, it is the diversity and depth of Austin’s tech sector that has led to the city’s growth as a power player. Last month, we released our Technology Economic Impact Report, the results of which detailed the critical role technology plays in the Austin metropolitan area. Today, technology companies employ more than 100,000 individuals, accounting for more than 9 percent of the city’s total work force. With a median income of $155,000 per year, tech professionals and their colleagues pump an estimated $21 billion through every facet of the local economy each year. In addition to homegrown tech, global brands like Facebook, Google, Apple, and Visa are setting down roots in Austin, bringing not only jobs but also a serious demand for talent.

Like other tech hotspots in the U.S., it is that demand for talent that has technology companies in Austin focused on near- and long-term improvements to the local talent pipeline. According to the Technology Economic Impact Report, nearly 80 percent of all Austin-based tech CEOs claim it is “somewhat” or “very” difficult to find local employees with the qualifications to fulfill these positions. “Fulfilling our need for talent is our number one concern,” says Susanne Bowen, CEO of PeopleAdmin and Chair of the ATC Community Foundation. “Ideally, we would hire locally. But there isn’t an educated, experienced workforce that is prepared to jump directly into these tech positions.”

Difficulty in recruiting, attracting, and retaining talent is the biggest challenge facing Austin’s technology sector right now—particularly in the fields of engineering services, computer manufacturing, and programming. Another key point revealed by the technology report is the need for educational institutions to invest in STEM-based education, or specifically in science, technology, engineering, and math. It’s imperative to the survival of Austin’s tech sector that STEM programs are available on both the high school and university levels. In order to cultivate a workforce prepared to join a growing market, STEM programs must be thoughtfully curated by educators, parents, and tech business leaders, while remaining flexible to meet evolving industry requirements.

The timing of this is critical. By 2017, it is estimated one out of every five technology-based jobs in Texas will be based in the Austin metro area. Without an abundance of technical talent, Austin may see the growth, health, and sustainability of the local tech sector limited and the economy greatly impeded.

It is not enough to simply support industry needs. Austin’s tech sector must also be an active partner in the local community. Establishing connections outside of the technology industry is critical to its success. While an educated talent pipeline is the most important factor, one cannot discount the importance of the city’s ability to attract and retain new folks. Establishing industry support in regional economic development projects will foster an important leadership role and allows the tech industry to guide Austin’s growth.

There is no doubt that Austin is fast becoming the model for a healthy and sustainable tech ecosystem. But with that moniker comes growing pains that only preparation and some of that famous Texas ingenuity can ease. An active and engaged tech community can ensure that the future workforce is educated accordingly, and that the city itself has an infrastructure in place to support this burgeoning community of innovators.

Julie Huls is the CEO and president of the Austin Technology Council. Her prior roles include vice president of operations for McCombs Enterprises and marketing and operations director for Dwyer Realty Companies. She also served as executive director and advertising consultant for Talk Media, an advertising agency in Austin Follow @juliehuls

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