Keeping IT Talent Local Is a Priority for Eugene, Ore.

The region has been trying to grow its technology firm footprint, but doing that means university graduates versed in computer sciences need to stick around.

by Elon Glucklich, The Register-Guard / December 4, 2018
Shutterstock/Mark Agnor

(TNS)  Anne Glickenhaus didn't know much about the companies she was heading to visit on a recent evening.

And that's a big problem for Eugene's tech community.

Glickenhaus was one of about 50 University of Oregon Computer and Information Science students who hopped on a bus last month for a free tour of three Eugene tech firms: CBT Nuggets, IDX Broker and Palo Alto Software.

They are trips the Technology Association of Oregon industry group calls Experience Oregon Tech, or, simply, "tech tours." And they serve a crucial purpose for the organization and Lane County's economy as a whole: Keep talented UO computer science students in Eugene once they graduate — where they can earn 74 percent more on average than the typical Lane County worker — instead of fleeing for larger tech hubs like San Francisco or Seattle.

"I had an inkling that Eugene was on the map for tech but had really never heard of any of these companies," said Glickenhaus, a 26-year-old Portland native who came to the UO for a computer science degree, after earning her bachelor's degree in behavioral neuroscience from Eastern Washington University.

"I didn't quite understand the extent of the tech community in Eugene, and what measures they were taking to help increase the tech (opportunities) here," she said, "with the fiber-optic Internet lines through downtown and just the sort of quality of life these companies provide for their employees. I had no idea about any of that."

It's an issue local employers and the tech association have have been trying to fix over the last three years, one tech tour at a time. And tech advocates say it's crucial to connect this young talent pool with the hundreds of small Lane County tech firms, especially as Symantec, once employing 1,400 local tech workers, has sold its massive Springfield complex and shrunk to about 200 people.

Before the tours, "one of the overwhelming themes we heard from local tech executives was that talent retention just flat sucked," said Matt Sayre, the tech association's vice president. "We have this wonderful university in our own backyard, graduating tons of smart kids who all leave to San Francisco or all leave to Seattle. There was overwhelming concern about that, the 'brain drain' and leaking talent."

Eugene's tech job "density"

Last month's tour started at CBT Nuggets, a firm that provides online training for information technology professionals worldwide. Joined by several Lane Community College students, the UO students broke into small groups and followed CBT employees on tours of each of the company departments.

There they got a taste for the office perks that have become synonymous with tech culture: a kitchen and adjoining lounge with arcade games, pingpong and Foosball, an exercise room and a "serenity room" for employees to quietly gather their thoughts — not to mention the Nerf guns and hover boards scattered across the office.

But the real pitches came in the middle of the tour, from employees such as CBT Nuggets web developer Peter Osborne. Osborne has worked in cities as large as Seattle and as small as Medford. He said he wouldn't have taken a job in Eugene when his Seattle employer laid him off in 2009.

"But Eugene has done a lot with its [tech] infrastructure. Eugene has more than 400 tech companies now," Osborne said. He commutes to work from his house in Creswell, where he pays less than half of the roughly $3,000 average monthly rent for a studio in San Francisco or New York.

"San Francisco has tons of jobs, but the cost of living there is really prohibitive," he said. "You want to think about how far your money goes, and you think about job density. What's a comfortable amount of job density to live in a place you can afford to live in but are also protected? Eugene has 400 tech companies ... . For me, if something happened and I couldn't work here anymore for whatever reason, I feel very confident I could find something very rapidly. We're in a community that has a high density of jobs that has a need for quality [web] developers."

The sentiment was identical at the second tech tour stop, real estate tech firm IDX Broker. Welcoming the busload of students to his downtown business, CEO and company founder Chad Barczak said he had no problem if students preferred seeking an internship at CBT Nuggets, Palo Alto Software or another tech firm instead of his.

But he urged them to consider keeping their talent in the UO's backyard once they earn a degree,

"We may compete for employees, but we're very collaborative," Barczak said of the city's tech firms. "We want you to stay in Eugene, buy houses and pay taxes."

Fewer tech employees, but more tech firms

At Palo Alto Software, students on the final step of the tech tour snacked on pizza while gathering near a wall, some snapping pictures with smart phones. They were looking at postings for 16 internships available next summer at the software company, which develops business training programs.

Kaela Schaefer stood nearby. A June graduate of the UO Computer and Information Science program, Schaefer interned at Palo Alto Software over the summer before being hired as a full-time software developer in October.

Before learning about the company on a 2017 tech tour, Schaefer knew of the company only from a sponsorship banner at the Sheldon Pool where she worked, and thought they were based in Palo Alto, Calif.

But, "I heard (Palo Alto Software CEO) Sabrina (Parsons) talking about how Palo Alto isn't out to just sell software to people. They actually want to make small businesses better," Schaefer said. "Just the idea that there's a tech company in town that had such a cool culture deck, had a real solid foundation in ethical business practices, I was like, 'This is the only company I want to work for.'"

That's music to the Technology Association of Oregon's ears, and an encouraging sign for a region that has actually shed tech jobs in recent years, despite the addition of dozens of new small firms.

About 4,100 Lane County workers were employed in tech jobs at the end of 2017, according to Oregon Employment Department data, down from about 4,500 in 2014.

The net loss in recent years is almost entirely driven by Symantec's multiple rounds of large layoffs, said Brian Rooney, a regional analyst with the Oregon Employment Department who has studied the region's tech landscape. It's also down from about 5,600 a decade ago, when Symantec and the Hynix semiconductor plant in west Eugene were operating.

But the number of firms has risen even as Symantec has slashed its workforce. About 450 tech businesses operated countywide at the end of last year, up from 418 in 2015, Employment Department data show.

"There's a lot of churn in tech sector, because companies start up, their goods and services are in demand for a while, and it's the nature of technology that things improve and things change," Rooney said. "But the addition of the new firms over the past year is definitely a good sign for the future."

The average annual Lane County wage in the tech sector was $74,279 last year, according to Oregon Employment Department figures. That's 74 percent higher than the $42,644 average annual wage in all Lane County sectors.

The tech association doesn't track how many tech tour participants later land jobs in Eugene, Sayre said. But it does survey each student before they participate in a tech tour, asking about their knowledge of Eugene's tech landscape and the number of employers here, Sayre said. Awareness of those companies has risen from about 10 percent of students in 2015 to 25 percent today.

"There are dozens and dozens of graduates over the last 24 months who, instead of going to Portland or Seattle, are choosing to stay and work for companies like Palo Alto Software," Sayre said. "I can point to a seemingly unlimited number of recent college graduates. These kids tell me, 'I didn't even know there was a tech sector. Now I work here.'"

©2018 The Register-Guard (Eugene, Ore.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.