Rekindling a "Rebirth"

by John W. Stout

In February, the IT industry publication InfoWorld published an article with the eye-catching title Tech sector leads Detroit's rebirth. It’s a bit early to call Detroit reborn, but if the high optimism of this article becomes reality, it will be satisfying for those of us who kept the faith and stubbornly resisted cheap shots at Detroit fired by—let’s say “ill-informed”—outsiders.
Here is a quote from the lead paragraph of the article:

“...according to tech job search company, Detroit has the fastest-growing tech job market, boasting an eye-popping 101 percent increase from February 2010 to February 2011.”

The article goes to on to quote a number of statistics and give evidence as to the renewed energy of the city’s tech sector, including Microsoft’s new technology center, near full occupancy of the midtown TechTown business incubator, and the “cloud-friendliness” of Detroit businesses.

And it’s not just that one article.

We have used for several years. From interactions with Dice customer service, we know this company makes frequent inquiries to its customer base to gather data. Stout’s own surveys of IT industry employment candidates have shown consistently that Dice ranks #1 with job seekers, so we have every reason to believe when Dice gives statistics they are well researched and meaningful. So score one for valid information.

Yes, the Detroit tech market appears to be alive with opportunities, in fact, the most I have seen since the Y2K days. This is a very good market for an IT job seeker as a candidate with proven skills is likely to have multiple employment options. Even better, we see interest from people who have left the area years earlier who now want to return. In fact, we have worked with several job seekers who did just that in the past several months, somewhat reversing the widely publicized “Brain Drain” phenomenon.

That’s a breath of fresh air.

Over the years, I’ve given plenty of advice on what a company should do to enhance its technical staff. Lately, I’ve been talking with clients and industry contacts on what they are doing to fill the hiring demand generated by the “rebirth.” Their comments are summarized below, edited to eliminate proprietary and too-colorful remarks.

A local client said: “The battle I had to fight—and eventually win—was to get my higher ups to make room in the budget for competitive compensation. We made offers to a number of candidates recently and lost half of them to better offers. I had to get management to admit that the recession in our business was over, and they already could see that based on demand from our customer. When we loosened up the purse strings we got many more of the people we wanted, and even then there was plenty of competition. There was also an unexpected benefit because our customers could see we were committed to hiring better people.”

The following response was interesting because it mentioned how one organization overcame its financial limitations. “We were surprised because we expected hordes of resumes from the unemployed to flood in. In fact, we got only a few resumes and only one resume from a semi-qualified candidate. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much we could do to increase the salary range for the position. We’re a research organization and I’m sure you know that limits our salary scale. However, we do have a good work environment and offer employees flexible work options, including working from home. We found a pretty good person who could look past the salary limit and hired him.”

“We’re trying contract-to-hire as an option,” another local client informed me. “That actually helps us speed up the hiring cycle because we don’t have to go through all the formalities to bring someone in, and it gives both parties the chance to get to know each other. Our HR just has to be satisfied we follow the hiring rules.”

One response was short but well worth sharing: “We made our techies get out to techie meetings and found ways to motivate them to recruit for us.”

I also spoke with a client outside of Michigan. She told me, “Sounds as though Detroit is doing a lot better. That [Chrysler] Super Bowl commercial was great. We’re experiencing the same demand for hands-on technical people. But we’re probably ahead of the game; we knew that the recession was ending because we listened to what our customers told us. We changed our hiring strategy over a year ago. We offered more creative compensation packages, training reimbursement, ability to work remotely.”

Each of the responses demonstrates two things to me: 1) a willingness to change, and 2) that change doesn’t have to be dramatic to be successful.

The rebirth of any company, community or the economy depends a lot upon rekindling the interest and spirit of the people that work in it. Attracting skilled talent who also contribute culturally to your organization is key to igniting that spirit.
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