For Local Tech Industry, Help Wanted

By Beacon Staff

In the last few months, Marcie Bochman, a staffing specialist at LC Staffing in Kalispell, has noticed an increase in calls from employers with the same need: available workers with expertise in computer technology.

Bochman found only a small pool of trained applicants. Instead she was forced to search elsewhere to try and fill almost a dozen part-time and full-time openings. That’s why she contacted Nick Thiel, the computer science instructor at Flathead Valley Community College. Thiel quickly organized a gathering for students to talk with local businesses looking for employees with backgrounds in information technology, web development and computer programming.

“There’s people here who are good people and who need work,” Bochman said.

The meeting at the college last month was emblematic of the current situation in the Flathead Valley, a region desperate for work but where, as of now, the unemployment pool is mostly lacking experience in the technology industry. In a room of more than 20 people, only a handful were students. The rest were business members needing to fill jobs.

“It’s continually a challenge to find skilled programmers from the valley,” Mike Callaghan from Bigfork Web Development said. “I’m having to go out of the valley to find people.”

Thiel believes the uptick in technology jobs is part of a changing identity in the Flathead. In the last few years he has seen the emergence of technology companies that are settling locally and growing with success. As a result, his students are in demand more than ever before as they earn degrees and enter the workforce. More students have begun signing up for tech classes at FVCC, Thiel said, and he hopes that number will continue growing with the increasing employment opportunities.

“We have a lot of pioneers of innovation in this valley and we’re attracting innovators here,” he said. “We better capitalize.”

The group of companies that flocked to FVCC in search of prospects expressed a wide variety of needs, from website development to system analysts to creative design.

Bigfork Web Development, which designs websites, applications and other tools to help businesses create an online presence, is expanding with in-state and out-of-state business. The need for employees is immediate.

The situation is similar at the ZaneRay Group, a full service design and information systems consulting group in Whitefish.

“We’re desperate for people to work for us,” Reed Gregerson with the ZaneRay Group said.

Other companies like Nomad Global Communication Solutions and NXGEN Payment Services are expanding in their technology sectors and have newfound needs.

More than a decade after the dot-com boom and bust, areas of the technology industry are flourishing. Despite the recent recession, this holiday season broke records in the online shopping sector. U.S. shoppers spent a total of $35.3 billion between Nov. 1 and Dec. 26, a 15 percent increase from last year, according to comScore, an online research firm. On the “Cyber Monday” following Thanksgiving, shoppers spent $1.25 billion, the biggest single online shopping day in history.

Analysts say the record-spending spree is indicative of a healthy foundation in the tech world. As a result, new and old companies are trying to capitalize.

In Montana, Bozeman has become a tech hub and training ground. The latest issue of Inc. magazine named the city an ideal place to start a technology company.

An article in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle quoted Inc. magazine, which said, “For a number of tech startups, it’s the Gallatin Valley – not the Silicon Valley – that offers the best environment for growth.”

Along with the state’s desirable amenities, Montana State University has proven to be a valuable asset in Bozeman’s rising technology status.

“(Bozeman is) a small town in southwestern Montana right in the mountains with fantastic schools and unbelievable opportunities for recreation, so we have people that come here from all over,” Schedulicity founder Jerry Nettuno said in the article, quoted by the Daily Chronicle. “People come (here) generally to look for a better, simpler way of life.”

Thiel sees a similar opportunity in the Flathead. Even though FVCC does not have the same resources as the state’s larger universities, the community college can still support the growing local technology sector, Thiel said.

“Community colleges are very pragmatic. They are not academic for academic’s sake,” he said. “I’m interested in playing my part in helping the local economy by trying to bolster technology as a viable career.”

Thiel touts technology as an industry with a small footprint but a massive impact. Business can come in from around the globe but without a noticeable affect on the local landscape, Thiel said.

“We’re not on the interstate but we’re on the data interstate,” he said. “We’re connected to everything right here, by fiber not road.”

After the gathering at FVCC, Thiel said he was still optimistic despite the low number of students in attendance. He hopes this is just the beginning of a changing identity, he said.

“This is something that made America powerful – innovation,” he said. “We need to keep doing that and I’d like to see it grow in the valley.”