With tech hiring sluggish, how can cities become tech hubs?

Eric Schmid Jun 13, 2024
Heard on:
Christian Johnson leads a discussion among entrepreneurs at the Founders Lounge in St. Louis. The weekly forum helps startup founders connect and share ideas. Eric Schmid

With tech hiring sluggish, how can cities become tech hubs?

Eric Schmid Jun 13, 2024
Heard on:
Christian Johnson leads a discussion among entrepreneurs at the Founders Lounge in St. Louis. The weekly forum helps startup founders connect and share ideas. Eric Schmid

The tech industry has changed a lot in just a few years.

There have been layoffs at many tech companies. Beyond the industry, companies across the nation are posting fewer listings for technology-focused jobs.

“I think there are a lot of corrections happening in the market. There’s a lot of pausing, a lot of readdressing strategy and rethinking strategy,” said Seth Robinson, vice president of industry research at CompTIA, a tech trade organization.

That’s disheartening news for cities that want to become tech destinations, like St. Louis, where supporters of the tech scene have long argued that the local workforce needs to double.

It’s a tough task and even harder now because there are about half as many listings for tech jobs around St. Louis as there were a few years ago.

There are a number of big companies with offices or operations there, like Boeing and Mastercard. But Emily Hemingway, who runs the nonprofit TechSTL, argues that St. Louis must look beyond those corporations to become a true tech hub.

“When you have significantly fewer jobs, you can’t be dependent on our large anchor institutions or corporate partners to really drive the workforce,” she said.

Instead, Hemingway said the region needs to double down on supporting entrepreneurs and startups.

“If we can’t find these great folks a good way to make money in St. Louis, they will either change their industry or they will change their town,” she said.

After all, tech employment is expected to grow faster than other sectors over the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — and St. Louis wants a piece of it.

On a recent evening, a handful of startup founders mingled at the weekly Founders Lounge forum. It’s an event where local entrepreneurs can connect and talk through hurdles to establishing their businesses.

Ricardo Martinez shared his experience a few years ago launching Juntos Adelante, a website to connect Spanish speakers with real estate or insurance agents who also speak Spanish.

“We were trying to roll it out nationally,” he said. “We got inquiries, leads, questions from California, Texas.”

But Martinez said he had to scale back the site’s offerings because of the complicated regulatory environment state by state. And he struggled to secure funders in St. Louis for the project.

“It’s just heartbreaking because you know that it has the power to change a lot of people’s lives,” Martinez said.

Today, Martinez maintains Juntos Adelante but is also pursuing other ventures. It may not always be easy to launch a tech company in St. Louis, but he plans to stay, he said.

“The balance [between] being able to reach for your goals and still being able to have a family and support your family — that’s what the Midwest really embraces,” Martinez said.

And that’s the thing about being an entrepreneur in the middle of the country relative to places like Silicon Valley, where the cost of living is much higher.

“This is a very low-cost and cheaper way to be able to start your idea,” said Christian Johnson, who runs the geospatial startup Metis Analytics as well as the weekly Founders Lounge event

Johnson has been a leader in the St. Louis founder scene for nearly a decade. He said the local ecosystem often lacks support and programming that goes beyond promoting a shiny idea.

“It becomes a fashion show, basically, instead of it being about people creating great businesses that serve our community, that bring jobs to our community and make our community better,” he said.

Getting entrepreneurs to the point where they can engage customers and begin to monetize their idea is key, Johnson explained.

That’s one reason St. Louis still has a long way to go if it wants to grow into an innovation community like Seattle or Austin, Texas. “A lot of that has been organic,” said CompTIA’s Robinson. “I don’t know how much of that can be planned for.”

Supporting entrepreneurship is one of the right moves, he explained, especially when startups tap into niche industries that are already active in a region.

In St. Louis, that’s geospatial intelligence and agriculture, among others.

“Those types of startups can thrive and flourish when you’ve got some momentum already and then you’re choosing to try and amplify and accelerate it,” Robinson said.

But, he added, it’s also important that aspiring tech hubs look beyond startups or specific industries.

It’s because the growth in artificial intelligence and demand for cybersecurity experts means all kinds of businesses will need more tech workers in the future, Robinson said.

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