Tech talent pool concerns sting Georgia leaders

Duluth-based NCR needs more software developers and it's among the Georgia companies having difficulty hiring such professionals in the metro Atlanta area.
Duluth-based NCR needs more software developers and it's among the Georgia companies having difficulty hiring such professionals in the metro Atlanta area.

Credit: AJC FILE

Credit: AJC FILE

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.

Home Depot can’t find enough software developers in metro Atlanta to fend off the threat of e-commerce retailers like Amazon. So the Atlanta-based home improvement giant opened and staffed technology centers in California and Texas.

The home improvement giant also imports about two-thirds of its 700 or so programming geeks based in Atlanta from other states and countries to build smartphone apps and other technologies.

The hiring issues underscore Georgia’s challenge in battling other technology hot-beds like Silicon Valley.

“At the end of the day, we don’t have the talent pool in Georgia,” Eric Schelling, Home Depot’s director of talent acquisition, said during the first meeting of the Governor’s High Demand Careers Initiative.

Tuesday’s meeting at the Georgia Tech Research Institute was the first of 12 stops in a listening tour for top state leaders to learn about the jobs of the future, with hopes of better aligning university and technical college curricula and training programs with businesses’ needs.

Schelling’s remarks elicited gasps from an audience that included the state’s top economic development, education and workforce development officials.

State leaders have spent years researching talent shortages, and already set aside additional HOPE scholarship money for technical college programs such as IT, practical nursing, welding, commercial truck driving, and early childhood care and education.

Executives with seven major companies spoke Tuesday. Though their worries weren’t new, the meeting and those that follow will help engage leaders and make the state more competitive, officials said.

Gov. Nathan Deal said he wants education leaders to more closely examine job placement rates to prepare students for jobs coming five years to 15 years from now.

“Sometimes I think we get in our little silos and the education community says: ‘This is what we need to teach,’” Deal said in an interview. “This is a way of having input from the real world.”

Business leaders weren’t shy.

Duluth-based NCR also needs more software developers. Porsche, building a new North American headquarters near the Atlanta airport, said it needs more accountants and other office professionals. The German sports car maker also needs automotive technicians — mechanics with serious information technology chops who can earn six-figures.

Schelling, the Home Depot executive, recruits at Georgia Tech and said he wants its graduates. But many new grads are lured to the Bay Area to work at startups or companies like Google. There’s also feverish competition among major metro employers for workers skilled with Java, HTML5 and mobile operating systems.

Schelling said Home Depot has more than 165 job openings in Georgia for these skills.

“We haven’t hired anybody (with these skills) in the last two months from the state of Georgia,” he said.

It costs more to import talent, which could work against Georgia in expansion decisions.

The business leaders discussed internship programs and the need for partnerships between not only secondary education but also high schools and lower grades.

Georgia invests billions in its universities and tech colleges, and spends millions helping businesses train workers. Its Quick Start jobs training program, an economic development incentive, provides free training to companies that grow in Georgia and has a projected fiscal 2015 budget of more than $22 million.

Roger Tutterow, a Mercer University economist, said producing more science, technology, engineering and math graduates is a top priority as Georgia competes with high-tech centers overseas and in the U.S.

“We’re coming out (of the recession) and expanding pay rolls faster than national average now,” he said. “But it is time to focus on longer term thinking about economic growth in the region.”

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey of top economic development officials last fall found six out of 10 said workforce quality is the biggest concern raised by prospects considering Georgia.

Chris Carr, the state’s economic development commissioner, said Schelling’s comment caused “a bead of sweat on my brow.”

But Carr said he and other state leaders welcomed the bluntness. The state is committed, he said, to showing corporate leaders that Georgia is serious about building a world-class workforce.