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Seeking Geeks 

Vermont companies compete to find qualified tech workers

Published October 26, 2011 at 10:46 a.m.


Recruiters for Vermont tech companies wish they could find more job candidates like Anthony Urena. The computer information technology major at Champlain College says he hopes to find suitable work in either Vermont or his native New Hampshire.

“I’m tempered by the cold weather and love the ecological friendliness of the residents,” Urena says of the Burlington area. Plus, he’s more focused on his prospects for career advancement than on getting the biggest possible paycheck as soon as he can.

At a time when 14 million Americans are looking for work, many of the state’s tech firms are experiencing a labor shortage. That’s due, in part, to the sector’s rapid growth — in Vermont and elsewhere in the country. South Burlington-based Logic Supply, for example, had three employees in 2004; it’s got 34 today. MyWebGrocer has tripled its workforce in the past three years; all 130 of its employees will soon be toiling away in the company’s newly purchased and renovated corporate headquarters at Winooski’s Champlain Mill.

But, while tech jobs pay more than most in Vermont — the average salary for a software developer was $77,150 in 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — they’re more lucrative elsewhere. A recent college graduate with the right skill set might earn at least a third more at an established tech company along Boston’s Route 128 than at a young digital business in the Burlington area, estimates Mark Heyman, human resources director for Logic Supply, which creates special-purpose hardware for businesses.

Even in Massachusetts, “Demand for high-tech talent is so great that workers are turning down six-figure salaries, and companies are offering five-figure cash bounties for successful referrals,” the Boston Globe recently reported.

As long as American universities continue to turn out insufficient numbers of graduates in science, technology, engineering and math — aka STEM — wages will rise as the number of available workers falls, causing the cycle to spin ever faster. “We’re seeing powerful salary inflation again in the high-tech sector,” confirms Tim Kenney, chief operating officer of MyWebGrocer, which puts retail grocers on the web. “The cost of living here doesn’t square with the pay scale,” he adds, noting that the Burlington area’s expensive housing makes the lower local pay rates even less attractive.

But money alone doesn’t account for the difficulty of filling vacancies in Vermont’s tech job market. “We pay nationally competitive rates,” says marketing chief Eliza Kelly. Salary deficiency “isn’t an issue for us.” But because Dealer’s growth has been so swift — it has doubled to nearly 500 Burlington employees in the past three years — it’s constantly prowling for talent. And the company, which designs websites and software for car dealerships, does much of its head-hunting far from its headquarters on Burlington’s Pine Street.

Executives in charge of hiring point out that Vermont’s small population yields a shallow pool of technologically proficient candidates. “We almost always have to look elsewhere for engineering hires,” says Kathy Gendron, vice president for human resources at BioTek in Winooski, which specializes in micro-instrumentation.

Kelly says is more likely to find engineers near its Manhattan Beach branch in crowded southern California than in northern Vermont.

To address the dearth of skilled candidates, some local tech companies have cultivated relationships with potential feeder schools such as Vermont Technical College and Champlain College; some offer paid internships. Logic Supply seeded a scholarship fund for Champlain students who excel in their tech studies.

The University of Vermont produces a few engineering grads equipped to excel in specialized positions, and MicroStrain in Williston has been quick to offer them jobs. Steve Arms, a UVM grad, founded the company, which makes tiny sensors for applications ranging from knee implants to drone navigation. “A lot of our people were hired locally,” notes Dave Churchill, MicroStrain’s vice president of engineering. Generally, though, the engineering school at UVM “isn’t at as high a level as some other places. We need the cream of the cream.”

An insistence on hiring only the best can lead to a protracted and often frustrating recruitment process for many Vermont tech companies. “We look for a high level of passion and a deep knowledge of tech. Finding that is a real challenge,” says Heyman of Logic Supply. “It takes time to locate the right candidate.”

MicroStrain spent seven months landing the most recent addition to its 55-member workforce, Churchill reports.

Same deal at Bennington’s Global-Z International, which manages other companies’ international mailing lists. “We’re very meticulous in our recruiting process,” says HR manager Aniko Balzer. “Matching up with the chemistry and culture of our company is very important.”

Not surprisingly, most Vermont tech companies aren’t wild about allowing workers to live out of state — though some are starting to experiment with permitting telecommuting rather than making new hires relocate.

Though it’s far from any sizable city, Woodstock-based Green Mountain Digital expects its employees to live within driving distance, says executive vice president Charlie Rattigan. And, since his two-year-old firm calls itself the market leader in wildlife and nature apps for mobile phones, it probably makes sense for Green Mountain Digital to stay put in a rural area.

But MicroStrain doesn’t like telecommuting, either. “You can’t build a team” when someone’s not physically in the workplace, Churchill says.

MyWebGrocer and each have a few telecommuting employees, but neither company seems eager to enlarge their number. “You lose communications” when a worker doesn’t put in face time in the Champlain Mill, Kenney says. Dealer has “only a handful” of employees, including one of the company’s lead recruiters, who commute “via Skype and airplane,” Kelly adds. Dealer, she says, “has been testing this out in the past year.”

Global-Z’s current opening for a marketing assistant “offers partial telecommuting options,” HR manager Balzer says, explaining that the right person for the job wouldn’t have to come into the office more than twice a month. The Bennington-based company doesn’t have much choice about permitting telecommuting, given that it’s situated in an area with “a lower pay scale even compared to Burlington and Montpelier and definitely the [Albany] Capital District,” Balzer says.

The lack of opportunities for lateral movement also handicaps Vermont companies that compete for employees with businesses in tech-dense areas. “Vermont has a reputation for not offering a lot of options,” says Logic Supply’s Heyman. “That hurts us.”

A mid-20ish techie hired by a Burlington business may well be ready for new challenges — and higher pay — by age 30, but he or she will probably have to move out of state to find a comfortable fit. “Young employees do like having mobility,” notes Gendron at BioTek.

So what’s the best way to persuade a well-credentialed out-of-stater to move north for a tech job? “You’re selling not only the company; you’re also selling Vermont,” says Kenney of MyWebGrocer.

BioTek’s Gendron acknowledges that “many of us do make sacrifices to live here.” But Vermont’s quality of life “offers a lot that’s attractive to a certain kind of individual,” she adds.

Churchill, the head engineer at MicroStrain, got offers from out-of-state businesses when he decided 10 years ago to leave his teaching post in orthopedics at UVM’s medical school. “Sure, I looked around, but I made the choice to stay in Vermont for lots of reasons,” he relates.

“Beautiful scenery, great people and abundant opportunity,” lists Champlain senior Stephen Jablonski, who’s majoring in computer forensics. “I am not much of a winter person, though,” he adds, by way of explaining why he is heading home to New Jersey to find a job.

Other techies, like Churchill, come to Vermont from far away and wind up spending most or all of their careers here. Nearly all of the employment specialists interviewed for this story say their company’s workforce exhibits extraordinary loyalty. Vermont’s values and workplace culture compensate in many cases for all the drawbacks of living in the state.

“It’s the lifestyle that attracts young people who like the outdoors,” Kelly of says. “Many are also excited to live in Burlington. I haven’t heard a single person say they want to leave.” Dealer cultivates an image of hipness that appeals to techies who don’t want to sacrifice their individuality to a code of corporate conformity.

Gendron makes a similar claim of fierce employee commitment in regard to BioTek, which is 43 years old and employs 260 people. “We haven’t lost anyone to the competition,” she says of the Winooski company. And, at the same time, “We are successful in hiring from our direct competitors,” Gendron adds. “Some of them come from large companies that have been bought and sold, and they see themselves as having been treated as commodities. They don’t get that here.”

Human resource experts from BioTek,, MicroStrain, Logic Supply, C2 and MyWebGrocer will participate in a panel discussion, “How to Stand Out in the Hiring Process,” at the Vermont Tech Jam on Friday, October 28, at 3 p.m. and Saturday, October 29, at 11 a.m. at the Borders building, 29 Church St., in Burlington.

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About The Author

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley is a contributing writer for Seven Days, Vermont Business Magazine and the daily Nation of Kenya.


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