The Tallahassee tech disconnect: Qualified candidates hard to come by for hidden sector

From the Tallahassee Democrat

Tallahassee is home to more than 60 technology-based companies. But, most people don’t know it.

Insiders say it’s a common reality they’ve confronted and, in their respective ways, tried to upend with some success. Many feel more can be done.

“I met with someone over the last few days, who said, ‘Eddie, there isn’t a technology sector in town,’ ” said Eddie Gonzalez Loumiet, president and CEO of Ruvos, a leading provider in the healthcare IT industry.

He politely disagreed and rattled off several company names: Kikoda, a software company. The 223 Agency, an internet marketing company. Ghost Controls, a gate automation manufacturer.

The technology industry is exploding and credited with producing nearly 13,000 jobs in Tallahassee. Yet, for example, there are more than 540 computer and mathematical jobs available in the market, according to CareerSource Capital Region.

Despite a surging demand and ubiquitous need for technology, employers are frustrated with their inability to find qualified candidates.

A new effort, the Talent Pipeline Management initiative, commonly called TPM, may help. It was created by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to be funneled down to the local level.

The Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce is leading the local effort as Gonzalez Loumiet and others work toward breaking down barriers and bringing more firms to Tallahassee’s hidden tech-based ecosystem.

‘Finding the people’ for tech demand

In January 2020, Gonzalez Loumiet said he sent an email to the Florida Department of Health, in which he alerted the state about COVID-19 rumblings. Within months, the coronavirus ravaged the country’s economy and sacked the healthcare system.

“That set the stage for a ton of new work for us,” Gonzalez Loumiet said. He describes his company as the “FedEx for healthcare.” Ruvos securely handles data from laboratories, hospitals and other healthcare facilities.

Throughout the pandemic, his company has been tasked to move ever-changing COVID-19 data across the nation that’s helped create information dashboards used by the masses, officials in state and local governments and the White House.

The data avalanche has been non-stop for two years: Gonzalez Loumiet, sitting away from the massive desktop monitor on his desk, admits he’s tired.

Still, decision makers rely on data to chart the next step forward. On Jan. 6, for example, he said the United States had processed more than a billion COVID-19 tests since the pandemic began.

It was one of many pandemic-related stats a Ruvos employee rooted out and released. More milestones are inevitable as the coronavirus rages on.

The data demand forced Ruvos to hire an in-house recruiter. Ruvos now has 80 employees working remotely nationwide and in a new South Africa office, doubling its workforce from 2020.

“We felt that not only do we need a significant number of employees, we wanted to focus on culture and make sure they were the right fit,” Gonzalez Loumiet said. “We didn’t just want anyone off the street, and we wanted to make sure they were going to be with us for a long time.”

As more people rely on technology, Gonzalez Loumiet and others said more needed to be done to create a capable workforce in the rapidly growing industry.

Ruvos, for example, can hire more people. But, the pace of hiring slowed down because their target candidates have more options: Higher wages and the ability to work anywhere in the world.

“For a small business like us when you’re competing with multi-national companies, we have to focus on things like (company) culture and family atmosphere,” Gonzalez Loumiet said. “You’re not a number. You’re a team member.”

One of the first steps was identifying companies and tech employees. In tandem with the Chamber’s research and pursuit of partnerships in the TPM initiative, Gonzalez Loumiet and others formed NAT, or Nerds Around Tallahassee.

It’s an association for tech workers to talk shop. More than 40 people showed up to the first meet-and-greet at the rooftop bar Charlie Park, at the AC Hotel by Marriott in Cascades Park.

Dustin Rivest, founder and CEO of the 223 Agency, an internet marketing company, said the collaborative nature of the pipeline effort is one of its most unique factors.

He, too, agreed there’s a competitive nature embedded in the tech industry, particularly in software development. But it’s important to share what’s keeping their employees and interns, such as pay, benefits, community involvement or location.

“My crew may have A, B, and C that keeps them glued here, but it may be something totally different for Eddie at Ruvos or some of these other tech companies,” said Rivest, a candidate running for the District 5 seat on the Leon County Commission.

Reality check newbie techies

Bryan Gibson is CEO and founder of I2x Solutions, a full-service IT consulting organization that serves some of the world’s largest law firms, along with insurance companies and local and regional IT support.

Launched in 2014, its suite of services runs the gamut from helping a local business set up a new network and printers to providing in-person support.

I2x Solutions has a dozen employees all working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As Gibson looks to the future, he wants to grow.

He’s run into snags while using formal recruitment channels, such as CareerBuilder and Indeed. The problem, however, was not knowing what the employee could do until he or she was hired.

Gibson decided to give job candidates an on-the-spot test to sniff out the most qualified people for his company.

“I’m looking to shift because the job market has exploded,” Gibson said. “The skill gap has exploded. So how do we fix this CareerBuilder (and) Indeed tech systems problem without taking it totally in our hands? TPM seems like a pretty good approach.”

Much of the work at Gibson’s company surrounds consulting, which requires “a tremendous amount of soft skills,” he said.

“You can’t teach soft skills in colleges. Or let me say, you can, but it’s not necessarily being taught,” said Gibson, offering a scenario where a college student takes technical classes to learn programming. “Those skills are the base level foundation you need, but that’s only half the story.”

Gibson, who earned an IT degree from Florida State, returns to his alma mater and talks with computer science or IT students. What shocks them, he said, is when he reveals his early start as a software developer and how less than half his time was spent on programming.

“That kills them,” Gibson said. “You’re going to put in a professional scenario, and I’m going to be programming half the time or less than that.

“… They’re ill prepared to do that other 60%, 70% of the time. And that other 70% is team dynamics and engaging some of these soft skills like critical thinking and analytical thinking.”

Higher education gets on board

Back in his Killearn Center Boulevard office, Gonzalez Loumiet talked about the circuit of meetings he’s recently had with policymakers and employers about a path forward. Florida State University President Richard McCullough is one of them.

“The meeting with him was outstanding. He has a passion, which I love, about entrepreneurship and technology,” Gonzalez Loumiet said. “I left there with goosebumps.”

Before becoming FSU’s 16th president in August, McCullough focused on creating startups from the university. His previous experience includes being vice provost for research at Harvard University.

Gonzalez Loumiet said McCullough requested more information about Tallahassee’s technology landscape. He didn’t think McCullough was aware of the over 60 tech companies in Tallahassee.

At Tallahassee Community College, the Talent Management Pipeline has been helping the school’s efforts to retool technology-based courses for today’s workforce and employer needs.

There’s high demand for business analysts, one of the top five most advertised jobs in Tallahassee.

“We worked together with TCC to create the curriculum (and offer feedback) for their Business Analysts Certification,” said Gonzalez Loumiet, adding it took three months last year to complete the process. “Imagine that … It felt good because it was them asking those who are hiring what should we be teaching. They put pen to paper and they made it happen.”

He said Florida A&M University has contributed to the effort too, especially with interns working at Ruvos.

“They’ve also been very good listeners,” he added. “Similar to TCC, they have been very receptive to our ideas. It’s been a great working relationship.”

Soon a new website called Launch Tally is slated to go live that will be a one-stop to learn more about Tallahassee tech companies.

While other organizations highlight local companies, such as the Tallahassee-Leon County Office of Economic Vitality, Gonzalez Loumiet said “it’s not a complete picture” if there are only a handful of companies listed.

The website’s self-reporting format will allow companies to highlight information and showcase their businesses in a positive light.

When asked why he’s taking a leading role in this effort, Gonzalez Loumiet is reminded of his early days.

In 2004, he launched his company as Uber Operations. The name changed following a settlement agreement with ride-share company Uber regarding brand confusion in 2018.

Those humble beginnings created a foundation, yet he’s reminded of how challenging it was to get his foot in the door and bolster awareness.

“It was hard to grow. It was hard to recruit people,” he said. “It was hard to share our story outside of what we do in our little industry.

“I know there are some new companies out there and even some older ones … If people knew more about them, it would help our community.”