After the Employment Trends Survey: What NJ’s Tech Industry Can Do, Part 2


NJTCs_Maxine_Ballen

This is the second part of an article about the questions posed by a survey on the N.J. tech industry’s employment trends and talent pool and what actions can be taken next. The survey was undertaken by accountant Jim Bourke of WithumSmith+Brown and attorney Kurt Anderson of Giordano Halleran & Cieslaon behalf of the New Jersey Technology Council (NJTC). Find Part 1 of the articlehere.

Responding to a survey question, many N.J. tech companies said they are unaware of the tax incentives available to them through federal and state government, despite great efforts by many organizations to make that information easy to obtain.

This is a puzzle that can only be solved through further outreach, NJTC CEO Maxine Ballen said. While the NJTC continues to reach out to its membership via programs, written material, online information sources and social media, “it’s an ongoing process we will never discontinue.”

Part of the problem is that when programs and incentives change, it’s difficult for companies to keep up, Ballen said. Further, if a company representative who does understand that information leaves or is transferred to another division or state, the company loses that knowledge base.

“We will continue to work closely with the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (EDA), the New Jersey Business Action Center, Trenton and the federal government to ensure our members are made aware of the state and federal incentives out there,” Ballen pledged.

While the organization will continue to bring in government speakers, she said, the best way to let people know what’s involved is to hold gatherings at which member companies that have applied for these programs make others aware of them and how to navigate them successfully.

Bourke noted that a follow-up question focusing on only N.J. showed that the intended audience, small- to mid-sized N.J.-based businesses who could benefit the most from these programs, are either too overwhelmed by the process to even begin exploring the benefits or not even aware they exist.

A CEO from a small tech solutions company summed up many of the comments, saying, “No idea what I qualify for! The websites for the state are a massive jumble of jargon and politicalese, and I don’t have the resources or time to understand them. They seem designed for super well-funded companies that are already state-sponsored and not anything my small firm could take advantage of.”

Anderson pointed out that the state has already tried to make the process more streamlined, but it is still a problem. Bourke added that a streamlined website summarizing what is available to whom would make a lot of sense.

It’s almost as though companies require a professional to guide them through the process, the duo agreed, but many of those who answered the survey represent small businesses that might not be able to afford to hire professionals to do that.

Yet another issue the survey dealt with is training. New Jersey companies are not hiring workers right out of school, and they complain that entry-level employees lack the skills needed to start working at their firms right away.

An analyst from a large pharmaceutical company put it this way: “Learning to apply their technical skills to problem-solving challenges [is the most important skill set lacking]. Our interns seem to have lots of technical skills but require varying levels of encouragement to apply them.”

Responding to the question “What is the biggest employment obstacle facing your company today?” nearly 21.5 percent cited the lack of company resources for employee training and development as the number one hurdle. More than 19 percent mentioned the lack of “qualified” marketplace talent, while just fewer than 19 percent faulted too much competition for a limited pool of tech candidates.

Ballen said IT and tech training is a continuing issue for N.J. tech companies, and there are many entities working on developing workforce skill sets that match the available jobs. “We are working very closely with colleges and universities, specifically community colleges,” she added.

Community colleges “have the ability to be more flexible and responsive to the companies’ needs because their structure lets them turn more on a dime,” said Ballen. “That said,” she added, “NJIT, Stevens and Rutgers have made real efforts to be much more responsive. NJIT, for example, is putting in place a new mobile apps program.”

Citing a recent discussion she had had, Ballen noted that requiring professional continuing education credits, such as those needed for yearly certification in fields like law and accounting, could be one way to ensure the workforce maintains and updates its skills.

“Maybe there needs to be that kind of licensing in place to enable tech professionals to maintain their skill sets through some vehicle, whether it be universities, CompTIA or another national organization,” she said.

Ballen was not surprised that companies aren’t hiring students right out of school. For students, she noted, interning becomes that much more important, to show some real-world experience. “We started offering internships as part of the workforce and labor grant we received last year, which was renewed this year.”

Added Ballen, “Our companies are in a unique position right now: the market is glutted with very skilled people. They don’t have to hire entry-level people; they can hire more mature workers and pay them entry-level salaries because people are having trouble finding positions. Once the pendulum shifts and the market is not quite as populated with so many displaced workers, the trend may shift back to hiring people right out of school.”

Ballen warned, however, that as soon as the pendulum does shift, the workers whom companies are underpaying are going to be “out the door so quickly, you are not going to have a chance to say good-bye to them.”

“I found it interesting that so many of our companies say they can’t find the kind of skilled labor they need when in reality there is so much of it out there,” she added.

Although not always the case, many companies that are having trouble hiring “need to accept the fact that they need to pay more to get the kind of people they need. While there are many skilled people who will take that entry-level salary … many say they are not going to. Companies need to understand and appreciate that when individuals bring a certain skill level to the table, they should be valued accordingly,” Ballen concluded.

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