One consistent theme you encounter when reading about the U.S. labor market is that we aren’t training enough tech workers to meet demand. “If we’re not producing enough tech workers, over time that’s going to threaten our leadership in global innovation, which is the bread and butter of the 21st century economy,” President Obama said recently. His administration even offered up $100 million in grants to help businesses train these kinds of workers.
But when journalists write about the difficulty of recruiting and retaining tech workers, it’s usually in reference to a handful of large tech companies on the West Coast, many of which are concentrated in Silicon Valley. Left uncovered are the thousands of companies spread out across the U.S. that are making meaningful contributions to the country’s technological innovation. They too must compete for talent, and the challenges they face vary by region and industry.
As the founder of a software company operated out of the Washington, DC metro area, I’ve spent the last 20 years testing various approaches to recruiting and keeping skilled programmers and CRM specialists. This region has experienced a veritable tech boom in recent years. “The D.C. technology job market is hot,” an area recruiter said recently. “The unemployment rate for IT in the D.C. metro area remains nearly non-existent, making it truly a candidate’s market.”
One thing I’ve learned over the last 10 years is that not all tech workers are created equal, and just because Bay Area companies like Facebook and Google have seen success offering lavish perks to their workers doesn’t mean that these tactics can be applied universally. Here are 4 trends I’ve observed while recruiting tech workers in DC:
It’s a more mature workforce
While it’s difficult to find anyone over the age of 30 in Silicon Valley (“Young people are just smarter,” Mark Zuckerberg once famously said), the workforce in DC is definitely older. According to data from FCW, 48 percent of IT workers for the federal government are over the age of 50, and many local tech companies often recruit government workers.
Because they’re older and at different stages in their lives, they value different things compared to their younger counterparts. While a younger person would be more willing to take a risk on a startup that might not exist in six months, an older worker is looking for a proven business (with real revenue) that they can rely on. They don’t want to wonder if they’ll be able to pay their mortgage or child’s school tuition a year from now. Stability is important.
Most technologists I’ve encountered are interested in creating technology that scales and drives real impact, and a lot of educated professionals are attracted to DC because of this very reason. Not only is the federal government headquartered here, but so are many of the largest nonprofits and NGOs. Given that my company has a large number of clients that are advocacy-focused associations, I often emphasize to new recruits that the technology we implement will impact millions of people.
This region is also, as some people call it, the “bullseye of America’s internet.” That’s because up to 70 percent of the world’s internet traffic flows through it. If you’re interested in impact at scale, there’s no better place to be.
Amenities work, but which amenities?
You’ve probably read about the nap pods, in-house chefs, and WiFi-enabled private busses offered to employees at Silicon Valley companies. The thinking goes that if you can offer amazing amenities, then you’ll improve worker morale and reduce turnover.
But I’ve found that the amenity approach is trickier than you’d think it would be. Not all employees value all amenities equally, which means you can spend a lot of time and money introducing different perks that might not have much impact on morale. One thing I’ve noticed is that DC workers care a lot about commute times and whether an office is accessible by public transportation or biking. So before you go offering private massages in the office, poll your employees to see if this is a benefit they actually want, or if there’s something else that would provide more value.
Tech workers are much more expensive here
A recent survey found that the average salary for a DC-based tech person is $97,000, which is 11 percent above the national average. One reason for this is that government contractors are constantly sniping skilled workers from the private sector. The way many government contracts are structured, the contractor makes more money when it bills more hours, so often times it’ll hire more workers than it actually needs just so it can throw as many bodies at a project as humanly possible. And with billions of dollars of contracts handed out to local companies each year, that’s a lot of money flooding the system that you have to compete with when recruiting employees.
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