Housing, outdoors play roles in attracting tech talent

By Liz Segrist
lsegrist@scbiznews.com
Published April 10, 2014

Affordable housing, bike lanes and the outdoors might not sound like the things technology firms need in Charleston, but they are crucial components, according to several tech executives who spoke at Dig South today in downtown Charleston.

Like much of the country, Charleston has a tech talent shortage. While local universities work to ramp up computer science departments, The Iron Yard opens its coding school in Charleston, and the Charleston Digital Corridor continues its CodeCamp — local tech companies are still recruiting outside of the region.

The growing tech community needs more software engineers, computer science graduates, coders and programmers. In their search for qualified workers, many local firms look to tech hubs such as Silicon Valley, Austin, Boston, the Research Triangle and New York City.

Charleston’s beaches, its arts and foodie culture and the cost of living can attract lots of talented workers to the region, but more needs to be done, Sparc CEO Eric Bowman said.

“We need that culture, that city, that lifestyle they want to attract these young, talented workers here,” Bowman said.

Part of convincing a 20-something software engineer to move from San Francisco to Charleston is offering them things that fit their lifestyles, like more affordable, urban living options and lots of access to outdoor activities, said Robert Prioleau, partner and strategy director at Blue Ion.

The state government can play a role in attracting more qualified workers to the region by improving infrastructure to alleviate traffic congestion as the region grows, the executives said.

On the local level, cities and counties can create more public transportation routes; adopt ordinances that promote biking; protect land for outdoor activities, such as hiking; and approve more mixed-use, urban housing options, according to the speakers.

The city of Charleston recently banned chaining bikes on parts of King Street unless they are on a bike rack, but techies, among others, want to be able to safely ride their bikes to work and have a place to park it, said Andrew Roskill, founder and CEO of BiblioLabs.

The region also needs local educational institutions to build up their training efforts for the technology sector. This means marketing the possibility of being a computer science or engineer graduate to younger kids, and boosting recruitment efforts and enrollment numbers at colleges and universities.

Businesses can get involved as well by mentoring students, speaking to classes or sponsoring scholarships, said Roskill, whose company has sponsored four computer science scholarships at the College of Charleston.

Part of the local tech community’s growing pains goes back to the “chicken or the egg” problem of funding and recruitment.

Startups need funding from angel investors or venture capital firms to become successful, but many investors are wary of funding a company in an area without a bigger hub of other successful startups already running nearby, Bowman said.

The same goes for talent. The more companies in an area that tech professionals can choose from, the more likely the workers are to relocate there. But for that hub of firms to emerge, the talent has to come here first.

Although the sector needs more talent and funding, the tech scene is definitely growing in Charleston. Benefitfocus, PeopleMatter and Blue Acorn are some of the companies that have expansion plans in the works.

Silicon Harbor is gaining attention nationally, as seen at the second annual Dig South, a festival on the digital economy that runs through Sunday in downtown Charleston. Nearly 180 speakers from Charleston and around the country are here to discuss social media, marketing, software and app development, financing and startups.

“People have woken up to the fact that Charleston is approaching other tech areas like Boston, New York and Seattle … We just need more talent now,” Roskill said.

Reach Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119 or @lizsegrist on Twitter.

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