Members of the Washington region’s start-up community gather each month and meeting co-organizer Peter Corbett almost always asks the same question: How many of you are looking to hire?
Without fail, dozens, if not hundreds, of hands fly into the air.
Like so many of their counterparts around the country, the region’s up-and-coming technology companies are in dire need of Web developers and engineers but must often compete for the same small pool of qualified applicants.
“It slows people down, which means they can’t attack that market or make as much money,” said Corbett, who is also chief executive at iStrategyLabs. “They might completely lose in that space.”
The shortage of engineers and developers has multiple causes, many of which transcend this region’s specific challenges. There aren’t enough American students pursuing degrees in science, engineering and math, and it’s difficult to secure visas for foreign workers.
Those students who do graduate from four-year programs often lack the skills that Web-centric companies require, such as writing open-source code and quickly building products that work.
“We have taken some people in and they learn as they’re doing it,” said Haroon Mohktarzada, the chief executive of Silver Spring-based Webs.com. “The universities are teaching theory and stuff, but they’re not teaching practical stuff like coding skills.”
Those difficulties are compounded in this region by the relative lack of talent compared to denser technology hubs, such as New York and Silicon Valley, as well as competition from hulking government contractors.
District-based LivingSocial counts an engineering team of 100 employees, about 40 of whom work in cities as far as Dallas, Portland, Ore., or Boulder, Colo., because there isn’t enough local talent, said chief technology officer Aaron Batalion.
To help advance its recruitment efforts, the company is debuting a five-month Web development training program next month called Hungry Academy. About 25 students will learn to build Web products and potentially earn jobs at the firm.
“It’s a quick way for us to test if this hypothesis is correct: Can we take raw talent, add on technical experience, add on product development experience and turn them into awesome members of the team?” Batalion said.
(LivingSocial’s chief executive Tim O’Shaughnessy is the son-in-law of Washington Post chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham.)
Mohktarzada at Webs.com said that his firm often recruits engineers from outside the Washington region, primarily from areas with an even smaller population of technology companies.
Places such as Silicon Valley are a “magnet” for talent, he said, but they also have more competitors and often struggle to retain employees. That’s particularly true when heavyweights, including Apple, Google and Facebook, can offer large salaries.
“It’s a lot easier to have a more stable group of engineers [in this region], which is really valuable because they learn the system and you don’t have to keep training them,” he said. “It just takes longer to build that team.”
Perhaps the biggest competitors here on salary alone would be major federal contractors, which often face their own struggles to recruit technology talent for in-demand areas, such as cybersecurity and data analytics.
As some contractors come under financial pressure and reduce staff in the wake of government austerity, the skill sets of those likely to enter the applicant pool may not match what many tech firms need.
“We will see an influx of talent into the marketplace, but these will be primarily mechanical engineers, civil engineers and aerospace engineers,” said Jeremy King, managing partner of Reston-based Benchmark Executive Search.
“The A-players, especially those who have security clearances ... they have more choices than ever,” he continued. “The government wants them. The government contractors want them. And those innovative, agile companies want them.”