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As Louisville Looks to Grow Tech Economy, Workers Are Hard to Come By

Business is good for John Salazar. Leather chairs encircle the conference table in the 26th floor office space where he works in downtown Louisville. A sweeping view of the northern section of the city and Southern Indiana pours into the north-facing window.

Salazar works as a patent attorney and specializes in intellectual property rights, predominately in the tech industry. He secures patents for various electronic and computer-implemented inventions. One of his most prominent clients is Google.

Yes, that Google.

But, despite the success, the 49-year-old attorney at Middleton Reutlinger is quick to point out his firm is facing challenges when it comes to finding and adding skilled workers to the IP team.

"We'd hire people, but it's difficult to find the right mix of experience and training," he said. "It's very difficult."

Louisville has thousands of unfilled jobs, specifically in the tech industry, said Kent Oyler, president and chief executive of Greater Louisville Inc., the city's chamber of commerce. And as Metro economic development officials work toward bringing more tech firms and entrepreneurs to Louisville, and get closer to installing Google Fiber Internet connectivity, the need to attract a skilled workforce becomes even sharper.

Salazar said he knows there isn't a bounty of the type of attorneys his firm needs: business-savvy computer engineers who've gone to law school. "Which is a pretty small and narrow slice," he said.

It's that diverse skill set that provides his team expertise in tech-centric patent cases. It's also attractive to clients such as Google. But the challenge of finding qualified workers isn't unique to the patent law industry — far from it.

"The problem we face is the same problem that so many other companies in Louisville face or are facing," he said. "So many companies here, in this region, are faced with the difficulty of hiring people that have the qualifications that we need."

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It's one thing to have a civic image that attracts a younger, smarter workforce to come here. But it's quite another to build the workforce that supports that image from within.

"We have to build the pool of workers," Oyler said. "By training and retaining them here in town, and attracting them to town."

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer has stressed that filling open jobs in technology fields is important for the city's ability to advance in a changing global economy. His administration has made it a priority, creating the Code Louisville training program as one effort to help close the tech-skills gap.

“The world’s technology needs are just moving a lot faster than traditional education solutions,” he said earlier this year.

Jobs in fields related to science, technology, engineering and math grew at three times the rate of jobs in other fields from 2001 to 2011, according to a 2013 report from the Greater Louisville Project.

But the workforce isn't keeping up.

Attracting workers to fill positions in these burgeoning fields depends heavily on the city's ability to market itself, Oyler said.

"We may not be at top of mind when you think of technology capitals, but we have a good tech environment," he said.

But there must be a concerted effort to get the word out about that if the city looks to compete with Nashville or Kansas City, Oyler said. Both cities who already have or are on their way to installing Google Fiber.

As for training, Oyler points to programs like Code Louisville as evidence that the effort and interest to fill the void of tech workers exist here.

Louisville has workers in tech jobs, he said. A 2014 report from the Greater Louisville Project found about 36 percent of Louisville workers are employed in the professional and technical fields. But that percentage placed Louisville in the bottom half of the list of peer cities.

East Market Street startup Interapt, which helps companies develop mobile and wearable technology, employs nearly 30 such workers. The core of the company's workforce is here in Louisville, said Steve Fowler, a spokesman.

He said the company has worked to develop a relationship with local universities and, more importantly, takes the time to show potential employees the work it's doing.

"Bringing them in, letting them shadow our people, letting them spend time with us, see the way that we work, see the clients that we work with and the kind of projects that we are doing," he said. "That really does the job for us in terms of getting people interested in wanting to work here."

For some projects, however, the company has to reach out to partners outside Louisville. "It depends on the expertise needed," he said.

That shortage of highly skilled tech workers is a problem that's not unique to Louisville, he stressed.

"Everywhere is having a shortage of tech workers," he said, from Silicon Valley to NuLu.

Attorney Salazar said he hopes the city's burgeoning tech scene — bolstered by the potential addition of Google Fiber — will advance what he calls the city's "knowledge economy." Ultra high-speed Internet will likely attract more companies and more jobs, but Salazar also wants to see it harnessed by higher education institutions to attract more students, with the idea that they'll one day add to the city's skilled workforce.

"Louisville is positioned well to compete appropriately," he said. "They just need the people to do it."

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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