Solving New York's talent problem

By Erin Griffith , written on April 2, 2013

From The News Desk

It's difficult to have a conversation with a New York tech company that doesn't touch talent. The lack of it is consistently named as a startup's biggest hindrance to growth.

I know that issue is not unique to New York, but it is a problem here nonetheless. New York startups have more access to capital than ever before, with an increasingly large group of West Coast and Boston firms setting up offices in the city. New York also has a unique institutional knowledge in areas like adtech, media, fashion and finance. And despite an early reliance on consumer web apps and commerce, hardcore tech companies like 10Gen and hardware companies from Shapeways and Makerbot to Maker's Row and Grand St. have shown the ecosystem's diversity. Beyond that, several big Silicon Valley companies including eBay, Google and soon, Facebook have large engineering teams here. Big exits are starting to happen and those on the receiving end of these exits are investing both their expertise and their new money into young companies.

Of course that's an overly rosy picture. The point is that New York has a lot going for it, but talent remains a challenge. Students from Columbia and New York are funneled into the ecosystem, and to be sure, more of them are interested in tech than Wall Street, a major shift over the last five years. Someday in the far-flung future, students from the new Cornell campus will be in that same position. Looking ahead even further, we even have a computer science-focused public high school (a national first?), the Academy for Software Engineering.

All of that is to say, be patient, the talent is coming. But that doesn't solve the acute needs tech companies have today. Mayor Bloomberg's recent campaign, We are Made in NY, uses media from subway and taxi ads to banner ads and Vimeo videos to promote New York's tech scene, all with the purpose of getting more people interested in NYC tech. Manhattan Borough president Scott Stringer's "Startup City" report included initiatives to attract "young, creative class professionals to the city," including micro-zoning for lower cost housing.

The latest to add two cents to the talent problem is AON and Partnership for New York City, a business network focused on economic growth. In an in-depth report released last week, the Partnership took talent-building strategies used within large organizations and applied them to the city of New York, offering up a handful of objectives and recommendations. Much of it is quite corporate -- there was talk of the "City's Inner Voice" and "Future Skills Programs". There is even a suggestion to develop workspaces in "edgy" settings. (It's bad enough when the Wall Street Journal gushes that startups are transforming "grimy" neighborhoods by opening offices there, which in New York is the ever-so-grimy "Midtown South," including Flatiron, Soho, Union Square, Meatpacking and Chelsea.)

But there are a number of solid, tangible ideas that the city's new Mayor may want to consider as NYC techies' friend-in-a-high-place Michael Bloomberg exits next year. One is to establish a Chief Talent Officer to build new policies and programs. We already have a Chief Digital Officer whose role is to make the city easier to navigate for companies. Rachel Haot has been an effective, strong advocate for startups in the city. A talent officer focused specifically on solving startups' biggest HR issues would (I think) do more than many of the other suggestions to create committees, agencies, and partnerships. For some reason committees, agencies and partnerships makes me think of that saying about meetings: "None of us is as dumb as all of us." A single person might be more effective.

Beyond that, the affordable housing suggestion was explored. As was working with Congress on startup visa initiatives. Help with affordable office spaces (edgy or otherwise) was emphasized as well.

The study actually noted that New York is number one in the world for "Future Workforce Access" for upcoming high-tech sector jobs, compared with cities like Boston, San Francisco, Seoul and London, because of our high literacy and mix of both business and tech skills. So I suppose, as I mentioned above, we may need to try something New Yorkers aren't exactly known for -- patience.

[Source: AON and Partnership for New York City]

[Image Credit: Taylor Liberato on Flickr]