To most people, Nashville is a one-note town: Music City, home of the American country scene. That's not necessarily a bad thing, says Liza Massey, president and CEO of the Nashville Technology Council. "It's great because it shows we have a creative, vibrant community." But now another type of creative professional is stepping into the spotlight: the tech entrepreneur. Not only have the big technology leaders like Microsoft, Dell, and HP come to town, but frisky social media startups such as Emma, Moontoast, and Populr, are sprouting up here, too. Plus, there's a burgeoning healthcare industry with high-tech needs. Which poses one of the best problems a city can have: Nashville now has 1,200 vacant tech jobs and not enough qualified workers to fill them.
So the city's Technology Council has launched Nashville Is Hiring, a massive recruiting campaign that uses strategies both conventional (partnering with community colleges) and decidedly unconventional (going after middle school kids) in hopes of filling those jobs and starting a larger conversation around how to make Nashville a great place for tech workers. It is one of the Council's several initiatives, which move beyond the "great quality of life" pitch and work toward making real grass-roots change with job candidates, educational institutions, and employers.
You might be wondering: Why so many jobs to fill? Well, for one, business is good. "The city has become so good at attracting and starting businesses that we've actually weathered the recession quite well," Massey says. "I get pulled into meetings all the time with companies who are looking to expand and all they want to work on is tech workforce."
The real problem is that while it's easy to sell families on Nashville—the city has great schools, affordable housing, and no state income tax—it's a lot harder to lure recent graduates. Employers aren't always offering the hip, culture-driven workplace that young creatives seek.
The Technology Council wants to help employers understand that the young, recently graduated tech workforce is looking for a very different kind of work environment. "We have to tell students that you're not going to be Dilbert in a cubicle, you'll have flexible hours, and you'll be able to work from home," Massey says. Massey and her team encourage that structure by pointing companies to the postive aspects of ROWE, or results-only working environment, the kind of ethos pioneered by companies like Best Buy and Zappos, where employers focus less on face time, and more on work achieved.
Nicholas Holland, an entrepreneur and founder of Populr, a publishing platform that allows users to make good-looking single-page websites, and the digital agency Centresource, serves as a local expert on ROWE, advising companies large and small on its benefits. Holland challenges Nashville executives to think differently when it comes to structuring their office life, from initiating flexible hours to placing a focus on corporate culture. His argument is that companies can use ROWE to add a lot of value for potential employees without spending more on recruiting or facilities. "Right now, there's a lack of resources so everyone is trying to entice and incentivize the same tech pool," he says. "Larger firms, especially in Nashville, like healthcare firms have the ability to throw a lot of money at the problem, but many workers are looking for other things like a fuller career path, or an ecosystem that supports their personal lives." (Holland sent me his answers using his company's product, which includes many more ROWE resources.)
The Nashville Technology Council also works closely with local government leaders, many of whom are on a coordinating committee that meets once a month. One of those members is Matt Largen, director of the office of economic development in Williamson County, south of Nashville. He's partnering with local community colleges to find funding sources for specific IT certification programs that meet the immediate needs of companies in the area. Across the region, says Massey, the Council works with the 14 universities, as well as community colleges, to tailor programs to employers' needs, namely in healthcare, where technology changes rapidly.
But Nashville isn't just focused on college outreach, they're also targeting junior high school students. Largen says his team is laser-focused on increasing the number of eighth graders who enroll in a track they call Foundations of Information Technology. "We know there is a high retention rate of students who start in the foundation class and continue throughout the IT track so we decided to focus our energy and resources there," he says. This includes sending a letter from the Nashville Technology Council to every eighth-grade parent and bringing in volunteers to answer questions about IT careers. "The bottom line is that we have to reach out to kids who show an interest and aptitude in technology and make them aware of the wide variety of career options."
It seems like it might not be the best investment of energy—there's no guarantee that those students will stay in Nashville when they enter the workforce—plus, could so much emphasis on tech that early be pushing kids away from other potential careers? Largen says that since technology is so pervasive in all jobs, a focus on IT in schools means building a stronger regional economy, period. "In today's economy, talent drives economic development," he says. "Plus, growing our own sector is going to be the direct result of efforts to push IT into early grades."
Katherine McElroy, a partner at C3 Consulting, also works closely with Nashville's public schools, where she says teachers, too, need to be aware of the widening tech field. She encourages local tech companies to host three-day "externships" during the summer for teachers. "It really helps for teachers to see how technology is used throughout companies in all types of industries," she says. She also points to local efforts to engage young women, like an Art2Stem camp for girls in the summer, and the local Women in Technology-Tennessee chapter, that sponsors mentorships and scholarships for girls.
Although the Nashville Is Hiring campaign has only been recently announced, Massey says the effort will include an ad campaign as well as visits to tech conferences like SXSW. Earlier this year, the Technology Council sent a street team of young Nashville residents to the Tennessee music festivals CMA MusicFest and Bonaroo wearing bright yellow shirts that exclaimed "I'm a hotspot!" with QR codes that could be scanned for more information about the tech jobs available.
Massey hopes that the campaign will allow them to entice workers from nearby Atlanta, Indianapolis, and Raleigh, but their bigger range of initiatives will also allow them to lure tech workers away from larger cities like L.A., New York, and Chicago. She thinks their efforts show candidates that Nashville is dedicated to creating the best tech working environment in the country. "I challenge them to find another city on their short list that has such a coordinated effort and is taking such a holistic approach."
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[Image: Cheryl Casey via Shutterstock]