In the Twin Cities and U.S., the New War for IT Talent

News | Monday, June 04,2012

Software engineer Zach Iniguez had no problems with his old job at MindShift, a national information-technology service provider with an office in the Twin Cities. He liked the work, the pay and the benefits, he said. But almost on a whim, he said, he applied for a job this spring at The Nerdery, a fast-growing Bloomington web development shop. Within a couple of days, he got a call about his application. The job offer came a couple weeks later, only hours after his second interview, he said.

Among the job perks: he can bring his corgi, Brewer, to the office any time, and there's tap beer at the Friday after-work gatherings, at which the latest projects are discussed. In a job market that is still sluggish for many, Angelo Spenillo attends a meeting with other solutions engineers at The Nerdery, which has been on a hiring spree. (Pioneer Press: Jean Pieri)

Iniguez's lightning-fast job hunt might seem miraculous. "I guess it was surprising," the easygoing 29-year-old said. "I just think it's indicative of software development. It's kind of an agile environment that's fast-moving." Fast moving when it comes to snapping up software developers such as Iniguez, anyway. Employers across the nation and in the Twin Cities are complaining about a shortage of software engineers and developers for their IT staffs. A national ManpowerGroup survey released last week listed IT staff as the third-hardest jobs to fill this year, trailing only skilled trades and engineers. That's up from last year, when IT staff was listed in sixth place. Part of the problem: lots of folks such as Iniguez are seeing what's out there. Eighty percent of IT professionals are looking for new jobs, compared with 60 percent two years ago, said Donna DiMenna, vice president at Right Management, a division of Manpower with offices in Edina.
"The people with the right talent now can go where they want," she told an audience at the spring conference of the Minnesota High Tech Association. She meant it as a sign of hope for the economy and a warning to employers. Half of the workshop was devoted to strategies companies can use to keep their most talented programmers from bolting. In the war for talent, people such as Iniguez are the prize.


On Monday, June 4, Trent Olson starts his new job as a software engineer.

And he hasn't graduated yet. He has one more class to finish by August before he gets his computer science degree from Metropolitan State University, but he interviewed for a job at Thomson Reuters in late March. "I wasn't expecting to be hired until I was closer to graduating," he confessed. "I was sort of testing the waters for what an IT interview would be like." It was the only place he applied, and he took the offer, he said. Olson, 37, who was born in Kelowna, British Columbia, has a bachelor's degree in English literature and worked as a Canadian book publishing sales representative for 10 years. He decided to switch careers when he moved from Ontario to the Twin Cities two years ago to follow his wife, Melanie Huska, who is pursuing a doctorate in history at the University of Minnesota. He chose computer science because he enjoyed programming as a hobby. "I realized I was kind of doing things backwards," he said. "I was doing literature for a career and computer science for a hobby." The starting salary for entry-level software developers in the Twin Cities averages about $62,900, according to Kenexa Market Analysis. Lead applications developers nationally can make between $89,250 and $123,500, up 5.1 percent

And the most in-demand of all are mobile application developers who develop programs for iPhones, iPads and Android devices. They can command average starting salaries of $85,000 to $122,500 nationally, up 9 percent from last year, because of the surge in demand for mobile apps.
Twin Cities IT salaries generally are about 3 percent higher than the national average, said Kathy Northamer, district administrator for Robert Half Technology in Minneapolis. For companies, the search for IT talent is hard -- there isn't an abundance of people with the exact right skills. "Everybody is looking for that same person," she said. As technology evolves, it will stimulate more demand for new services such as cloud computing or mobile apps, and that means more demand for IT developers, Northamer said. "Hold on tight, because it's going to be an incredible ride," she said.


That's not to say that every techie is fully and happily employed, but Minnesota's IT jobs situation has improved dramatically since the Great Recession, said Oriane Casale, assistant director of labor market information at the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.

In 2009, after the crash, the computer sciences and design sectors, which account for about one-third of the state's total IT jobs, lost 7 percent of its jobs on an average annual basis, she said. This March, the number of jobs in computer sciences and design rose to 31,339, or 11.2 percent over the same month last year, Casale said. That's close to the state's peak of 33,900 jobs in those sectors in December 2000 at the height of the dot-com boom, she noted.


Twin Cities companies say they're struggling to fill open positions. At Thomson Reuters, whose Eagan campus is home to its Westlaw legal publishing operations, 1,800 of its 6,900 employees on campus are technologists. Still, the company wants more. The division that manages legal information in massive online data bases had 150 open positions in April, said Lisa Schlosser, the chief technology officer for the content marketplace group, with over half of them devoted to programming. And the legal business that writes applications for Schlosser's group's data has another 150 open positions, ranging from new software development to software quality control, project management and software architect, said Bruce Gorter, CTO for that group. "We're having a hard time meeting demand," Gorter said. "What we're seeing is a dearth of IT skills generally."

So the two CTOs have asked their staff to recruit from every college and university in the Upper Midwest. This spring, Gorter's group canvassed 35 campuses, he said. Schlosser, a board member of the Minnesota High Tech Association, said the company has partnered with Maverick Software Consulting, a company that hires college interns to work on IT projects.

Thomson Reuters also pays employees a reward -- a bounty, if you will -- if someone they recommend gets hired. The company declined to disclose how much they pay, but at The Nerdery, it's $500 a head, spokesman Mark Malmberg said. The Nerdery also cruises the colleges, but leans heavily on the soft sell, touting its 15 employee clubs ranging in topics from Japanese anime to knitting, said Hillary Heinz, a marketing producer. It also holds open houses and "tech talks" in its "Nerditorium" -- a modern amphitheater with beanbag seating -- on esoteric topics that attract software engineers.

So far this year, the company of 350 has hired 75 people, said Mark Hurlburt, vice president of marketing. The Nerdery screens first for personality fit and then makes candidates take a test to show they have the right technical skills. "The only thing we have to sell people is our people, their skills and their time," Hurlburt said. "So, for us, it's important to have the best people."


Educators are trying to figure out how to turn more of their students into those "best people." The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system is in the middle of a statewide tour of "listening sessions" seeking input from companies. A MnSCU study done with DEED shows that for occupations such as IT specialists, the supply of college graduates with those skills already fall short and the gap might grow larger, said Bruce Lindberg, executive director of Advanced IT for Minnesota. MnSCU is learning that companies don't want the old stereotype of the programmer who stays locked in the basement, pounding out code. "They need to understand why they're writing the code, who they're writing it for and what it will be used for," Lindberg said.

Sounds like Angelo Spenillo's new job. The former lawyer worked briefly for the U.S. Department of Justice and a Washington, D.C.-area law firm before deciding to go techie. He joined Thomson Reuters, first as a Westlaw trainer -- "I was good at legal research, and I could tell war stories about how research saved my life in court," he said -- and then as product developer, moving to Minnesota in 2008.

Then in April, he jumped to The Nerdery as a "solutions engineer"-- a liaison between the client and the programming team. He interviews the customer about the particulars of a project and takes that information to the developers, and jointly they develop a proposal. Spenillo, 35, began his job search two years ago, doing things to emphasize his technical chops, such as taking online programming classes. "It's not about the money and the benefits," Spenillo said. "The technology changes so fast, you have to keep learning." "Every day I leave work with a headache, but in a good way because I've absorbed so much," he said.

Leslie Brooks Suzukamo can be reached at 651-228-5475. Follow him on Twitter at