Talent Scouts

Unique program casts a wide net to attract young IT and engineering minds to the Fox Cities

Story by Rick Berg

January 2017

Picture, if you will, talent recruiters traveling the Midwestern countryside, scouring college campuses for promising young technology talent, gathering them up in charter buses and dropping them off in downtown Appleton for three days of courtship by community leaders and employers.

That’s pretty much what Talent Upload looks like – except the staff at the Fox Cities Regional Partnership has already done the legwork of identifying those students before the buses hit the road.

Talent Upload completed its third iteration this fall, bringing in 74 students from 12 colleges in Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan to meet with representatives from 17 area companies. The project, launched in 2014, evolved from a series of meetings between Fox Cities employers and staff from the Fox Cities Regional Partnership, the economic development arm of the Fox Cities Chamber. Those meetings revealed concern among employers about a growing talent gap in filling engineering and technology job openings.

The Talent Upload all-expense-paid visit – of which costs are underwritten by participating companies – is intended to expose engineering and IT undergrads to the opportunities available at local employers, but also to the lifestyle of the Fox Cities.

“The Pew Research Foundation did a study on Millennials and what they found is that when Millennials are considering a career, they tend to look at where they want to live first and then they look for a job in that area,” said Beth Pritzl, director of research and technology for the regional partnership and coordinator of Talent Upload.

In fact, most research on Millennials confirms the generation values work-life balance far more than previous generations and in their careers are more focused on having a sense of purpose and working for organizations that share their values.

It was that focus on community and environment that moved the regional partnership and its employer partners toward the Talent Upload concept, which derives somewhat from the site-selection model used by economic development organizations to attract businesses to an area – demonstrating not only the tangible business benefits of a city or region, but also the quality of life characteristics that help attract and retain a workforce.

In the case of Talent Upload, students meet one-on-one with business leaders at company sites and in group networking settings with potential employers. Participating students also take part in a mobile app-based scavenger hunt intended to take them to different parts of the Fox Cities – mainly downtown Appleton – and offer a glimpse of community life here.

“The idea is to give them an idea of just the flavor of the community,” said Pritzl. “We try to make it really interactive so they have to talk to people, find out how friendly they are, make sure that they see there are some very cool housing options, as well as the bars and the social scene, so downtown Appleton is really good for that.”

Award-winning results

One of the early proponents of the Talent Upload model, Paul Mueller, who serves as chief information officer at Thrivent Financial in Appleton, believes its success is evident in the results.

“At Thrivent we have an IT staff that numbers 500 or more and we have an additional 200 contract workers, so our business is very dependent on information technology talent. We also saw that there was a very unsatisfactory pipeline of IT talent available in our industry as a whole, regardless of geography,” said Mueller. “When they approached me about sponsoring this program I was very excited, because it’s the first time in my many years in IT that I’ve seen this kind of innovative approach to familiarize future IT talent with our businesses and our geography.”

Three years is plenty of time, according to Mueller, to determine that the Talent Upload model works.

“In each of the three iterations of the Talent Upload program we have extended offers for internships and employment,” Mueller said. “We think it’s one of the most innovative programs of its kind and believe it has brought high value to us as a company and to the region. It’s absolutely been a successful process.”

Like Thrivent, Neenah-based J. J. Keller & Associates was quick to jump on board, feeling the pinch of the technology talent gap and determined to do something about it.

“J. J. Keller & Associates has been a proud participant in the Talent Upload program since its inception,” said Cindy Enli, talent acquisition manager at the transportation management firm. “As a growing company, with a strong focus on hiring technology talent, it is critical that we have engaging ways to connect with students.”

Outside the region, Talent Upload has drawn attention. The program won the 2015 Best in Show Award from the International Economic Development Council as part of its Excellence in Economic Development competition, which attracted nearly 500 entries worldwide.

Shannon Full, who left her post as executive director of the Fox Cities Chamber last month to take a similar post at the TwinWest Chamber in suburban Minneapolis, said the award bears out the value of responding to needs employers reported in their meetings with Full and her staff.

“We learned that there were hundreds of IT and engineering job opportunities opening and employers didn’t know how they were going to fill those going forward,” Full said. “They are looking for solution-based strategies to meet their challenges and the award we won shows this program has emerged as one of the most innovative ideas to come along in terms of meeting the talent gap challenge.”

Enli agreed.

“As the Fox Valley area continues to grow, the need to find quality technology talent has also grown for many area employers, including J. J. Keller & Associates,” Enli said. “We currently have a team of 200-plus technology associates focused on developing innovative products and solutions. As our organization continues to grow, the demand to hire technology talent continues to increase. Talent Upload is a great forum for students to experience the vast technology opportunities available in the Fox Valley, while exposing them to a wide a variety of growing and innovative companies.”

Stephen Kohler, vice president of human resources at Neenah Enterprises, said his company is a more recent entry into the program, having come on board in 2015, but it didn’t take long for his company to see its value.

“The war for talent continues to be a hard battle and there’s no silver bullet any more for recruiting,” Kohler said. “You have to be everywhere and in every medium, and we saw this as a great way to impact a lot of students. Whether or not we hire them, if they go back to their schools and talk about what they saw, that will be an investment we have in future talent. So, we saw this as a very cool program that we just want to be part of.”

Purpose, community and lifestyle matter

Mueller said Thrivent’s not-for-profit status also helps the organization attract Millennial talent that is increasingly focused on having a sense of community and purpose.

“The purpose of work is very different for this generation than it is for Baby Boomers,” Mueller said. “As a not-for-profit we operate with a mission in mind, and the social impact we create clearly resonates with the kind of candidates we want to attract. We also have a very successful internship program and we have a holistic experience for the people who intern with us. We assign mentors to them, we provide education, we provide meaningful, real business impacting work that they can participate in.”

Beyond the value any individual employer can provide, northeast Wisconsin in general and the Fox Cities specifically are powerful selling points.

“Students have the choice to build their career in almost any location,” Enli said. “Whether they are originally from the Fox Valley or considering it as a career destination, it’s important for technology students to understand the abundance of career opportunities and quality of life they can find in the Fox Valley.”

“Once you get people here and show them what the area is all about, the quality of life and the quality of education, you can connect them to this region as a place to start careers and raise families,” Mueller added.

“We just think this program is a really great way to sell our community,” said Kohler. “Whether or not we directly hire, we’re contributing to the greater good. It’s a great investment. We may never know the full fruits of it but we know it helps build our brand image for our community as well as for our company.”

For Full, Talent Upload exemplifies the best in community-employer partnerships.

“It’s not just here, it’s nationwide that we find that attracting, retaining and developing talent is the number one challenge, and companies are looking for solutions and partnerships to address that challenge,” Full said. “Here, with Talent Upload, we have companies that generally compete for talent coming together in an unprecedented fashion to say, ‘Let’s bring the talent here, let’s expose them to the assets of the community, and then we’ll compete for them by telling our individual stories.”

Rick Berg is a freelance writer and editor based in Green Bay.