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Can St. Louis join Silicon Valley, Seattle as high-tech hubs?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 28, 2009 - When you think of places known for their information technology workforce, Silicon Valley and Seattle come to mind. Clustering prominent software and social media companies is a major draw for innovative start-ups and high tech workers.

What about St. Louis?

People gathering here Wednesday for a conference on IT innovation know that their city won't be mentioned in the same breath as the West Coast technology hubs. While St. Louis lacks the big names of the high-tech world, it has its share of companies that rely heavily on an IT workforce. The need to highlight what the city already has to offer is a theme likely to be echoed throughout the daylong Gateway to Innovation conference at the Chase Park Plaza.

"We're not going to be a Seattle or a Silicon Valley or a Research Triangle type of place," said Willem Bakker, chair of the Gateway to Innovation conference and executive director of the Information Technology Coalition, a group of business leaders and educators that promotes regional economic development. "In St. Louis we can say if you want to apply technology to a multitude of industries, this is a good place to try it out."

The way Bakker sees it, the city doesn't get the recognition it deserves. Plenty of employees at companies such as Anheuser-Busch, Brown Shoe and Monsanto are doing jobs that fall into the broad definition of IT but aren't labeled as such by the U.S. Department of Labor. Instead, the employees are often classified as being in beverage manufacturing, shoe manufacturing or the life sciences.

Bakker rattles off statistics that he says prove that St. Louis is already a major player in IT employment: More than 50,000 people in this region work in IT, including more than 2,000 in health care alone; the city is 30 percent above the national average in the number of IT professionals on a per-worker basis; and, last year, six St. Louis-based companies were listed in Computerworld magazine's top 100 workplaces for IT professionals.

Ian Patterson, chief information officer at the financial service company Scottrade, said he considers St. Louis to be the Midwest's IT hub. It's a substantial but largely behind-the-scenes workforce that manages network security, develops databases, responds to technology problems and translates technical jargon for executives.

At firms like Scottrade, a corporate sponsor of the conference, these IT employees are "running the business for another type of business," as Patterson said.

Still, not everyone is sold on St. Louis as an IT hub. "We are far from it, but it's a good goal to pursue," said Benjamin Akande, dean of Webster University's School of Business and Technology.

Sharing Practices, Making a Pitch

The Gateway conference is a chance for IT professionals from across the region to discuss the state of the field. Chief information officers swap stories and best practices, selected job seekers network with area employers, and panelists talk about the importance of social networking and how IT plays a role in health care and other sectors.

The Information Technology Coalition is among the hosts of the conference, which drew upward of 400 people last year and is expected to surpass that amount in its second year. Bakker, who spent most of his career running high-tech companies, said the event is a chance for company leaders to make professional connections, as well as talk about technology innovation and ways to build up the IT workforce. The conference also provides Bakker a forum to remind everyone what's already here.

Part of his pitch to local business leaders and politicians: Stop thinking about the regional economy as dependent only on retail, lodging and manufacturing - all of which are struggling in this down economy.

"We are a better place for IT talent than most people give us credit for," Bakker said. "If you're being courted by a certain company, the perception is that if it doesn't work out there you have to leave town, rather than thinking there will be six other companies that want your skills. We can't change the perception outside of St. Louis if we don't change our self-image."

Kathleen Osborn, executive director of the Regional Business Council, a consortium of local business leaders, said in addition to large companies such as Citi and MasterCard with a significant presence in St. Louis, the region should be known for its high-tech entrepreneurial companies, including SSE and Maryville Technologies.

Companies recruiting outside the region sell potential employees on affordable housing and quality of life, but face the perception that St. Louis is the place you go to start a family and have a house in the suburbs, Bakker said. While that might appeal to some potential employees, he said, the city misses out on too many young people who don't want that life.

Akande, the business school dean, said it will take the arrival of more start-up companies, as well as public and private investments in areas such as green technology to reverse the trend of the outmigration of young people who are interested in high-tech careers.

"We can make all the excuses in the world on why we are not recognized for who we are in St. Louis and what we have to offer, but the reality is if we are recognized as a technology hub, the results will speak for itself," he said.

it is Still Hiring

At a time when job openings in many fields are scarce, IT proves to be an exception. Bakker said as recently as October more than 1,000 IT positions in the region were open. The economic downturn has led to a decrease in hiring, but the openings are still in the hundreds, he said.

Out of roughly 80 current openings at Scottrade, for instance, well over half are in IT. The company hires at least 20 people a month for such jobs, said Patterson, the CIO.

"I can't think of an occupation more secure than IT," said Osborn, the RBC executive director. "People with this type of background are always in demand at companies."

Patterson said that while he's typically able to fill IT positions, there is often a mismatch between a candidate's skills and what the job requires. "People right out of college talk about the buzzwords but don't have the experience," he said. "Other candidates are overqualified but don't have the right kind of experience." That could mean being an expert in programming software that's out of date and not keeping up with the latest technology.

Area business and engineering schools provide some of the training that makes IT job hopefuls more marketable. (The IT Coalition includes more than a dozen institutions as members.) Bakker said increased collaboration among schools and companies would insure that students are being taught the right skills and that the businesses are aware of young talent.

Bakker sees his mission as bringing together like-minded companies, and matching employers with job candidates. "There's a lot of misunderstanding about the number of job openings and where they are located," he said. "We're hoping to move the needle on matching needs and developing a pipeline."

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