Developing Tech Talent in Florida’s Capital City

From the U.S. Chamber of Commerce

In a state not considered a technology hub, Tallahassee is proving the city can be a landing spot for tech talent. Cover image photo credit: TLHDEM/Alicia Devine

“TPM gives you everything you need, and it gives you models for how to work through the process, but it never predetermines the work your group will take on to resolve the local issues, says Corrie Melton, Tallahassee Chamber vice president of talent development and membership. This is the beauty of the process.”

The Challenge

Tallahassee’s technology industry is rapidly growing, producing nearly 7,000 jobs in Florida’s capital city. Despite an urgent need for technology talent, too few students and existing tech workers are aware of the growing potential of Tallahassee’s tech sector. Most assume that a good tech job can only be found in better known Southeastern tech hubs like Atlanta or Austin. But with more than 70 tech companies in the capital region and the state’s reputation among other state agencies for sought-after innovative technologies, Tallahassee is primed for a booming tech community. These tech companies are primarily business to business and in many cases, government technology companies grown from government work that have transitioned into the private sector. From lotteries to health information to criminal justice, much of the technology running state agencies across the country are headquartered in Tallahassee.

Unfilled job openings and retention plague the tech industry in an education-centric town. Tallahassee is home to Florida State University (FSU), a top-20 public university; Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University (Florida A&M), the number one historically black college and university (more commonly referred to as HBCU) in the country; Tallahassee Community College; and Lively Technical College. And although many people would think it difficult to have a talent shortage with so many academic institutions close by, entry-level employees stick around for two years post-graduation, and then find themselves in a small-town atmosphere with seemingly no one like themselves and look to move.

The Solution

With the support of the Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce, a group of tech employers joined forces to address the industry’s most pressing talent challenges. Leveraging the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Talent Pipeline Management® (TPM) framework, the collaborative identified their most critical functions: business analyst, DevOps, software developer, and customer support, and the pain points of unfilled job openings and retention to drive their actions as a group (TPM Strategy 1 aims to organize employers around a shared pain point for their most critical jobs).

The tech collaborative is creating awareness of the growing technology industry in Tallahassee. From articles in the local paper to tech-related expos, to “Job Hops” where the local chamber takes van loads of graduating seniors on tours to meet local tech employers, see their physical offices, and talk with current employees, these tech companies are coming into their own. The group recently launched its own website, LaunchTally, to give technology companies a platform for awareness of the industry and the companies that are engaged, a place to explore partnerships with K–12 and higher education, and a central spot for those in the industry to network with their peers. Recognizing those challenges that created the most significant barriers to a more expansive pool of new and experienced talent, the tech collaborative is implementing business-led solutions for their business problems.

It’s All About People and Partners

Coupled with its reputation as an education community, being the state capital also means Tallahassee’s most active networking scene revolves around state policy. “My employees want to talk coding, development, D&D [Dungeons & Dragons],” stated one employer, topics that might not be typical for the chamber crowd.  And so NAT20 was born, or Nerds Around Tallahassee. NAT20 took the stereotype that tech workers were “nerds” and created an opportunity for tech workers to network in settings that interested them. It is the first group of its kind and is attracting this niche group of employees with the hopes of helping them build community so they will be more likely to continue working in Tallahassee.

Partnering with education is a key focus for the tech collaborative. Members of the collaborative explore and discuss their relationships with higher education for recruitment and retention to determine which activities are most successful for all stakeholders (TPM Strategy 5 brings employers and provider partners to table to co-design talent solutions). From speaking in classrooms to offering work-based learning opportunities to providing support for business-driven projects, a team is integrating the collaborative’s work into the classroom with provider partners. For example, professors from Florida A&M and FSU have recruited TPM collaborative members as speakers and mentors for their students. And the tech collaborative recognizes the importance of starting with students at an early stage. The employers are working with Leon County schools and other K–12 partners to ensure technology curriculum in each grade gets the needed support from employers to remain current and to provide hands-on support to schools and teachers.

“As you look at the [TPM] value stream map, you will see how our employers have embraced this concept,” according to Corrie Melton, Tallahassee Chamber vice president of talent development and membership. “The value stream map shows how employers have identified and acted on key areas of improvement. From the earliest learning opportunities, to upskilling, to general promotion of the industry, it takes a village to raise the child. The tech collaborative supports both the village and the chief in lifting this industry
to the level it deserves.”

Learning Lessons

The collaborative’s efforts have only recently taken off, so the Tallahassee Chamber is excited to see what remains in store for these employers and the tech talent pool. In true TPM fashion, the Chamber has let the employers drive the process and there has been valuable insight up to this point.

One of the challenges the Chamber experienced early on was getting data from participating employers. To keep the employers engaged, leadership had to rethink their strategy. Support and endorsement from the Office of Economic Vitality paired with media attention significantly helped. An op-ed was run in the local paper and the author included the list of roughly 65 local tech companies involved in the collaborative to date. Upon seeing the article, companies who had not previously responded to data requests reached out to the Chamber wanting to participate, and the tech collaborative has since grown close to 80 companies. As people show interest in being a part of exciting changes in Tallahassee’s tech industry, more companies want to be recognized as legitimate tech companies. The collaborative’s activities have seeded their interest in going back to the comprehensive TPM data process to see what more they can achieve.

Opportunities to Replicate

This model can be repeated in other communities. Melton shares that the biggest obstacle in implementation was understanding that each TPM collaborative is specific to the needs of those employers willing to lead. For this particular effort, a lack of classes or outdated curriculum was not the cause for difficulties in hiring. By acknowledging this, the group was able to solve some key issues in implementing the TPM model.

Melton adds, “Each TPM group is different. The tech collaborative is not at all like the other collaboratives that we oversee. The needs are different, the employers are different, so the work is different. TPM gives you everything you need, and it gives you models for how to work through the process, but it never predetermines the work your group will take on to resolve the local issues. This is the beauty of the process.”