IT Hotbed

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How Oshkosh is rallying around a burgeoning IT cluster in the community

Story by Robin Driessen Bruecker

An industry cluster study completed this past June for the Oshkosh Area Economic Development Marketing Group found the community contains several diverse information technology-related businesses, including data processing, mobile applications, software development and technical support, among others.

“We do have a rapidly growing IT sector in Oshkosh,” said Rob Kleman, vice president of economic development for the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce. “We saw this growth beginning in the mid-1990s and it has grown tremendously over the past five years, including companies like ImproMed, Oracular, DealerFire and Accu-Com. The presence of UW Oshkosh and Fox Valley Technical College, along with their student base and degree programs, have helped to grow this sector immensely.”

The study itself was spearheaded by Economic Growth Advisors and NorthStar Consulting Group. Representatives from the business, economic development and education sectors banded together this summer after the release of the report to form the Targeted Industry Information Technology Committee focused on carrying out the study’s recommendations (see sidebar on page 30) and to serve as a networking source for local companies.

“The committee feels that the strongest opportunity for growth in the IT sector is to provide the necessary resources to existing companies and local entrepreneurs that want to grow their business in the Oshkosh and New North region,” said Kleman. “The characteristics that make Oshkosh advantageous for a prospective IT entrepreneur include the vast network of resources that are available through UW Oshkosh and Fox Valley Technical College, a growing network of IT professionals that is being fostered by the growth of IT businesses in Oshkosh, a quality infrastructure network that is available to these companies, and a skilled and trained workforce as well as access to a trained student workforce.”

An IT business incubator is among the recommendations, which Kleman said has become a top priority for the committee. Additionally, the committee will work to improve the link between the education and private sectors, and will address common perceptions of the IT sector. Kleman noted the IT sector needs staff with strong creative, customer service, digital imagery and technical skills.

The business side

The chair of the IT cluster committee, DealerFire CEO Eric Hoopman, looks for well-rounded employees for his own business.

“Specific IT requirements are of course needed in most positions at DealerFire, but like all growing companies, we need all team members to possess certain skill sets,” he said. “Namely, problem-solving prowess, great attention to detail, and exceptional communication and follow-through.”

Hoopman’s first business was the website design service Neleven, formed in 2000. After landing an automotive client in late 2004, Hoopman realized there was a niche market. By 2007 he had created DealerFire and focused solely on design, programming and technology for automotive clients.

DealerFire was catapulted to the forefront of its industry in 2009 when it received its first Automotive Website Award. The company serves thousands of car dealer clients across the U.S. and Canada and employs more than 70 people in its Oshkosh headquarters, Hoopman said.

DealerFire added 50 of those employees in the past two years. The company uses the traditional recruiting methods – Monster, CareerBuilder, Craigslist and even local job expos.

“We also have a great relationship with local colleges, specifically UW Oshkosh and Fox Valley Tech, where we’ve had a lot of success with internships and new hires,” said Hoopman. “And we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t have an extensive social media network we rely on to spread the word as well.”

ImproMed LLC, a software developer for veterinary firms that was founded in Oshkosh in 1979, also has a strong recruiting relationship with UW Oshkosh and FVTC.

With a relatively recent growth spurt, ImproMed added 10,000 square feet of work space and more than 50 jobs in 2012. When recruiting new employees, general manager Hallie Detjen looks for those candidates who can and want to learn and are able to apply that knowledge. ImproMed emphasizes on-the-job training and will consider candidates who haven’t been formally educated but love technology and have taken the initiative to teach themselves.

“Technology changes and it changes fast,” said Detjen, also an IT cluster committee member. “We also operate in a niche industry. … Fox Valley Technical College and the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh do a great job in preparing students for a position in technology. We get some of our best candidates from those pools. But it can’t stop there.

“Right now it’s a difficult market to find the right candidate … there are new technologies available that are being taught; however, we have older technologies that need supporting and advancement in our business. This requires candidates to be able to develop or support multiple programming languages which can be a learning curve.”

Another IT cluster committee member, Candeo Creative CEO Zack Pawlosky, started his social media marketing agency in May 2012 at age 19. His company now has seven employees and expects to be at 12 by the end of the year.

As an IT-related employer, Pawlosky values flexibility, passion and a willingness to learn among the job candidates he considers.

“Our industry will be different tomorrow and most likely be 100 percent changed in a year. Having a team member who is willing to learn new things and adapt quickly is a quality I look for right out of the gate. Flexibility is also important – technology can fail and our client relies heavily on us; this means occasional late nights and early mornings.”

Pawlosky primarily looks to UW Oshkosh for job candidates.

“There are a tremendous amount of great designers, programmers, communicators, marketers, etc. that come out of that school. Most of them are self-taught and the university helps them groom their skill. It can be challenging to find talent, and sometimes exhausting, after countless interviews but there are definitely some strong candidates out there – I believe I have the staff to prove that. Ninety percent of my staff have come from Oshkosh.”

The education side

The IT cluster committee pinpointed potential projects, with one currently underway to implement an IT Career Pathway project between FVTC and the Oshkosh Area School District, according to Anne Haberkorn, dean of information technology and distance learning at FVTC.

Through this three-year project, local high school students can earn industry-recognized IT certifications before graduating.

“These particular courses will be offered with dual credit from the Oshkosh high schools and FVTC,” Haberkorn said.

Not everyone has the same idea about what information technology is, Haberkorn noted. For some, it’s about programming code, software development and mobile apps, she said. For others, it might mean the cabling and wireless networking of an infrastructure, which includes customer support from a help desk or consultant. FVTC offers both programming and networking programs, including numerous associate of applied science degrees and certificates plus a technical diploma and customized training.

To keep these educational programs relevant to employer and community needs, FVTC uses employer advisory committees for input and feedback on an ongoing basis. One example is cyber security.

“Our employers tell us that every IT job involves some level of knowledge about how to protect IT systems and information,” said Haberkorn. “In response to that request we now offer our IT – Security Certificate as well as integrate security content into all of our offerings.”

The job prospects are broad and “terrific,” Haberkorn said, with recent FVTC graduates landing programming positions such as application developer, business analyst, graphic artist, software developer, user interface designer, and webmaster. Networking positions included customer care center technician, help desk specialist, IT field engineer, systems engineer, and technical support.

At UW Oshkosh, students in the information systems program learn about web, mobile and desktop development as well as project management and systems analysis. According to Michael Eierman, professor of information systems and IS department chair, these skills prepare students for developer and analyst positions, as well as help desk and IT infrastructure management jobs. Additionally, the university has worked with some local businesses for internships to help IS students get hands-on experience prior to graduation.

Locally, job prospects for UWO graduates have been great, Eierman said.

“It is very easy to find meaningful work. You almost have to try to not get a job. The average starting salary for students from our program last year was just under $50,000,” Eierman said.

“We expect opportunities to grow in Wisconsin,” noted Haberkorn. “There are many contributing factors including looming baby boomer retirements, emphasis on pathway projects matching employer needs with K-12 and post-secondary educational offerings, and an increasing reliance on mobile devices and solutions.”

“Off to a great start”

Committee members are feeling upbeat about the future and ready to take action.

“Employer input for the IT Career Pathway project should result in improved curriculum and support for project participants,” said Haberkorn. “With curriculum that is tightly aligned to employer needs, the IT talent pool should increase. When the talent pool grows, enterprises are attracted to where the talent is located and, our hope is, move to the area. When new businesses take root in Oshkosh, the consumer base grows, and the likelihood may be that more businesses will benefit from having more customers.”

“Increasing the number of qualified employees will make Oshkosh more attractive to tech industries to both move to or stay here,” said Eierman. “If we are successful this will hopefully benefit students with some kind of support for their education, and anything that helps our students helps UWO.”

Said Hoopman, “We are just two short meetings into it and have already formulated a consolidated list of actionable and realistic items that will make an immediate impact on our community. In short, the IT cluster is off to a great start.”

Detjen noted that with long-standing local IT companies like ImproMed and Oracular plus FVTC and UW Oshkosh, the area has “a hotbed of technology resources.”

Additionally, Detjen noted technology companies provide unique economic value to a community compared with other more traditional industries because they place limited demands on community resources.

“Technology companies put minimal load on the infrastructure of a city and maximize the revenue that goes back into the local community,” Detjen said. “Because our primary cost is people and we aren’t buying widgets from someone else and reselling them, the money we make goes back into the local community through wages. … My hope for this IT committee is to help ensure that the community recognizes and helps promote local technology companies and ensures we become known as a technology hub.”

Candeo’s Pawlosky is excited about the direction Oshkosh is headed.

“The committee is going to help my business by driving more IT-type talent here, and building Oshkosh as the ‘place for IT,’” he said. “I am passionate about this city, and believe focusing on growing the IT cluster will drive powerful economic growth in our area. I think we are on the right path – there are some great minds in that room and big things are coming. I leave those meetings with a lot of excitement.”

Robin Bruecker has 17 years experience in magazine and marcom writing. Contact her at robinbrueck@yahoo.com.