Skill gap seen in applicants for jobs in high-tech fields

After making a lap around the conference room in Fox Hall at Bellingham’s Hampton Inn, Will Hobbs takes a short break from mingling with dozens of potential employers, almost all with jobs to offer.

Hobbs is at the Bellingham TechExpo and Job Fair, hosted by the nonprofit Technology Alliance Group for Northwest Washington, to scope out jobs available from local technology employers. The 41-year-old, who works a graveyard shift doing security at Silver Reef Casino in Ferndale, said he has about eight months left before finishing an information technology degree program at the local branch of Charter College.

He said he is interested in a career in network security, and he thinks he will likely start out at a small company. But right now, it’s difficult for him to narrow down the options.

“It’s so hard to really decide on what I want to do,” Hobbs said.

Once he’s completed school, Hobbs will enter an industry with employers who say it is getting harder to find skilled and qualified applicants to fill job vacancies.

A 2012 survey completed by the state Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board, the results of which were released in January, found that out of an estimated 60,000 Washington employers who hired new workers last year, one in five had difficulty finding qualified applicants.

While unemployment has dropped from recession-level highs in much of Washington, finding work remains a problem for many people. Whatcom County’s most recent estimate from the state Employment Security Department put its jobless rate at 7.9 percent.

Employers in the high-tech industry, a growing sector in Whatcom County, reported the highest difficulty compared to other industries. In the high-tech field, 51 percent of employers surveyed across the state reported difficulty filling vacant positions at their companies.

Workforce and labor analysts say a continuing “skill gap” between employers’ needs and workers’ skills poses a threat to the state’s business climate and economy. It also makes it more difficult for people out of work, or those preparing to enter or re-enter the workforce, to find good-paying jobs.

This skill gap is apparent in the technology field in Whatcom County, said Mark Knittel, chair of the board of directors for the Technology Alliance Group, which is more commonly known by its acronym, TAG. But local tech employers’ difficulties finding good hires aren’t based entirely on a dearth of qualified applicants, he added.

“There is a general shortage across the board that isn’t localized to here,” said Knittel, who also owns a local computer service company called Ovation Technical Services (previously a Data Doctors franchise).

Whatcom County’s smaller market size, when compared with larger metro areas with strong tech sectors such as Seattle or Vancouver, British Columbia, also plays a role in making it more challenging to recruit skilled workers, Knittel said.

Educators in Bellingham and Whatcom County have plans to address a projected lack of college graduates in science, technology, engineering and math, a conglomeration of subjects referred to as “STEM,” which is in high demand in the technology field. These plans include new initiatives to engage students at a younger age and encourage them to pursue STEM-related interests and education.

Analysts predict that by 2018, Washington could have the third largest demand for STEM-related jobs in the entire nation, according to a 2012 annual report from Whatcom Community College.

A skilled labor pool will be necessary if Whatcom County is to continue its development over the past decade into a strong hub for tech business.

Whatcom has the seventh highest number of technology-related jobs in Washington state, according to TAG. Three Whatcom County tech firms, Toolhouse Design Company, Ryzex and Logos Bible Software, have ranked among the fastest-growing private firms in the country.

Bob Pritchett, president and CEO of Logos Bible Software, Bellingham’s largest software developer in terms of employees, said it is challenging for his company to find qualified workers. Expanding his team of software developers has been particularly challenging, Pritchett said.

Logos, an electronic publisher of biblical references and scholarly works, is ready to bring on a significant number of new hires. The firm has dozens of open positions listed on its website. Along with jobs in software development, there are openings in marketing, sales, graphic design and video, along with additional openings in Logos’ internship program.

The company has grown rapidly since relocated to Bellingham in 2002 from Oak Harbor, Wash., with around 40 employees. Today, Logo employs more than 300 people.

Pritchett said Logos looks for the job applicants who can prove they have the skills needed to be a successful addition to the firm.

While credentials and education are important, occupation-specific skills are generally given more weight, he said.

“We’ll look at your resume, but it really doesn’t matter,” Pritchett said. “We care about proven and demonstrable skills that are related to the job.”

For other companies, it can also be difficult to find applicants with the right attitude toward work.

Back at the job fair in Fox Hall, Tim Dyck, a developer and team lead at DIS Corp. in Bellingham, was advertising two job openings on the company’s mobile-technologies development team.

Dyck said he sees a lot of applicants—including many fresh out of college—who lack a strong work ethic and critical-thinking skills necessary to make them effective employees.

He added that at times, there’s almost a sense that younger applicants feel as if they are “owed” a job.

“For the younger people we’ve been interviewing, there’s this kind of indebtedness,” Dyck said.

Still, he added, for skilled applicants looking for work in the area, there are jobs available.

Evan Marczynski, lead reporter for The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or

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