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Meet the new tech mecca: Philadelphia

May 2, 2017

Jane M. Von Bergen, Staff Writer, Philadelphia Inquirer


The San Francisco Bay Area has Google, Apple, and Facebook.


And Philadelphia? It has the Liberty Bell.


And also, the region ranks second, behind the Bay Area, in the number of tech jobs as a percentage of total number of new jobs created in the region in the past 13 years. One in four jobs created in Philadelphia was a tech job — that’s ahead of the 21 percent in Washington, the 13 percent in Boston, and the 12 percent in New York.   


“When you see this kind of growth, you should be paying attention to it,” said Josh Sevin, acting executive director of Economy League.


The paying-attention part begins Tuesday morning when the Economy League presents its report on the challenges and opportunities facing the region’s technical work force at the Cira Centre, one of the more than 100 events that are part of Philly Tech Week, the weeklong tech extravaganza organized by Philly. 


“If people can get Brooklyn out of their system,” said Nick Frontino, the Economy League’s managing director, “there’s no reason we can’t be eating other people’s lunches when it comes to people” getting work in technology.


“I think it’s a testament to how much the tech ecosystem has grown here,” he said.   


Now for the caveats: Of the nation’s ten largest metropolitan areas, Philadelphia ranked at the bottom in job creation, adding just 102,940 jobs from 2002 to 2015 (Boston, for comparison, added 336,890.) So, despite its second place spot on a percentage basis in tech job growth, it’s at the bottom in the number of tech jobs at 25,870.


The significance of the statistic is primarily local, Sevin said. Tech jobs are important to the region and making sure the supply meets the demand is key to the region’s growth. "If there ever were a circumstance to invest, it would be in an area where we are facing a talent crunch," he said.


"Philadelphia is in a pretty good situation,” said Charles Eaton, executive vice president of CompTIA, the tech industry’s largest trade association, and one of the speakers presenting the report. “There are lots of job openings and that means there is lots of opportunity.”


Nationally, there are 500,000 to 800,000 tech job openings a year, Eaton said. Most of them wind up being filled by someone who already has a tech job, meaning that there aren’t enough people entering the field.

Shortages in the field are expected to grow as more baby boomers retire, Eaton said.


One reason there is a shortage is that people of all ages are confused about what a tech job is and what it takes to qualify. “People think you have to be great in math and science. That’s not true,” Eaton said, “There’s probably a place in technology for everybody.”


Many tech jobs don’t require a four-year degree; one-third of the region’s tech workforce holds less than a bachelor’s degree, the report said.


Dan Rhoton, executive director of Hopeworks ‘N Camden, preaches that message to the 350 young people from Camden, aged 17 to 24, who learn website development, digital mapping, and relational database development. They intern at the nonprofit, which leads to jobs in the private and public sector.


“Some of them are homeless,” he said. “Some of them have been trafficked. We had a young woman, who, a little over a year ago, was homeless. She’s now earning $60,000 a year.”


Rhoton tells the young people that tech employers “don’t care what your school history is, they don’t care where your tattoos are. You just have to be able to do the work.”


Another myth?


Sevin and Frontino said that people tend to think that tech professionals are all working nonstop developing apps at start-ups, drinking beer, playing ping pong, and losing their jobs when the company burns through venture capital money. But Frontino said, there are plenty of corporate jobs “which can provide a level of stability.”


So, what’s next?


Companies need to train current workers to fill tech openings and to develop apprenticeship programs for people beginning careers. The industry needs to educate the workforce about the breadth of career possibilities, while working to attract more women and more races into a field now primarily peopled by white males.


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