Expansion of Charleston’s tech industry creates talent gap

College of Charleston Senior Megan McCorry (left) talks with Blackbaud team manager Jennifer Ring during a recent career fair held at the College of Charleston. McCorry, who will graduate in May was looking for job opportunities after graduation.

Marc Murphy, the chief executive officer of SPARC LLC, has anything but a shortage of job openings.

In fact, he has a surplus.

The Charleston software firm has had about 30 openings for more than the past year.

He’s not alone in his effort to find enough qualified workers, he said.

“I know from talking to other CEOs, I know other companies are struggling with this,” Murphy said. “This is not a SPARC problem. This is a community problem.”

The so-called talent shortage reflects the growth of the tech sector over the past decade or so in Charleston, where competition for trained help at all levels has been heating up.

No single industry is fueling the demand. The region now includes two large publicly traded software companies in Blackbaud Inc. and Benefitfocus Inc. A thriving defense-contracting industry has developed around the high-tech Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic. Then there are big manufacturers like Boeing Co. that are on the hunt for tech-savvy workers, as well as dozens of small startups and off-the-radar firms.

“The technology community in Charleston ... has grown at a rate well above the national average,” said Ernest Andrade, executive director of the Charleston Digital Corridor Foundation. “When you’re growing above the national average, not all of your systems are going to be in sync. Some are going to have to catch up, and education and workforce development are two big things we’re working very aggressively to get caught up on.”

To work on training talent, some firms have been working with area colleges to work on what their graduates need to go work in the local technology industry. Others are taking matters into their own hands by hiring inexperienced employees and training them in-house.

At SPARC, the recruitment issue became more critical after the company was acquired by McLean, Va.-based Booz Allen Hamilton late last year for $53 million. The new owner is looking to ramp up the Clements Ferry Road operations.

“Booz Allen has invested in a roughly 500-person facility here ... we feel a responsibility to make sure we fill that,” Murphy said. “You have a Fortune 500 company that’s made a significant investment in Charleston. Part of realizing that investment is getting the people.”

Peggy Frazier, vice president for global talent acquisition at Daniel Island-based Blackbaud Inc., pointed out that the high-tech talent gap isn’t a local phenomenon.

“There’s a shortage in the country,” she said. “We’re not any different than anywhere else.”

Companies need to take “a national approach to recruiting,” said Frazier, who joined Blackbaud, which caters to the philanthropic industry, after previously having worked in human resources and recruiting at tech firms Apple and Microsoft.

SPARC’s Murphy said that in talking to investors, they pointed out one disadvantage for the Charleston region is that it does not have a major academic institution providing tech talent. Those are typically associated with bigger tech hubs, such as Silicon Valley and North Carolina’s Research Triangle.

But the pool of graduates is growing. Sebastian van Delden is chair of the computer science department at the College of Charleston. He said the program has grown from having 30 graduates two years ago to having 70 or 80 this year.

Also, the department is doing more to interact with businesses, something van Delden was asked to do when he became chair a couple years ago.

The department has expanded its advisory board and launched a class where computer science students work on projects with local employers that include SPARC, CSS International, Blackbaud and the Medical University of South Carolina.

The number of computer science majors also is growing at the University of South Carolina in Columbia — to nearly 700 last year from 265 a decade ago.

SPARC’s Murphy said working with colleges and universities has been useful. He said he’s “trying to be more proactive” with SPARC’s relationships with schools about the skills companies like his need.

“To their credit, they listen,” Murphy said.

In some instances, SPARC has brought in students for working internships, an effort he described as “really successful.”

Other programs that are available include CODEcamp, a crash course that has worked with 1,700 aspiring software programmers since the Charleston Digital Corridor launched the first class four years ago next month.

The latest entry to the tech training space is the Zucker Family Graduate Education Center being built at Clemson University’s campus on the former Navy base in North Charleston. It will offer degrees in engineering and a doctorate in computer science.

Christina Lock is the former head of recruiting at SPARC who went on to found Catch Talent, a hiring company in the Charleston area. Companies need to be more open to hiring less-experienced workers and investing the time to teach the skills they need, she said.

Blue Acorn is ahead of the curve. The Charleston-based firm, which specializes in e-commerce technology, started its own training program around 2013.

New employees go through at least a one-month incubator program where they learn the ropes of the upper peninsula firm. The training program, for some developers, can be extended as long as three or four months to get them up to speed.

Blue Acorn founder and CEO Kevin Eichelberger said the company looked at the people who were available and found it was able to hire “very few, if any.” Eichelberger said the decision was whether to put someone to work and learn on the job, or put them through a formal training program and shorten the process.

“Today, we are hitting our hiring targets,” he said. “We are not constrained by talent.”

Eichelberger estimated about 75 percent of the company’s employees relocated to Charleston for their jobs. He thinks that’s a good thing.

“We’re able to find some great talent across the country, versus just being restricted to those here.” Eichelberger said in an email. “Second, I think it’s helped foster strong relationships between the people here.”

Charleston-based cybersecurity firm PhishLabs also works on training their employees. CEO John Lacour said he finds it easier to fill entry-level jobs than more advanced roles.

“Part of our strategy to address that is to bring people in and train them and promote from within to fill that gap for middle-level tech talent and managers,” Lacour said. “We’re constantly looking for people who have a lot of potential ... smart and hardworking and have the basics but we’ll help them get to the next level.”

Lacour added: “I don’t want to downplay that there’s no challenges in finding good tech talent. ... For me, it’s a positive story that we’re kind of headed on the right track, but we’re not where we want to be yet.”

Murphy of SPARC agreed.

“The good story about this is I think it’s absolutely a problem we’re already starting to put a dent in,” he said.

Murphy said Charleston’s tech scene is “a good place to be” and a “really positive inflection point in Charleston.”

“We’re at this point where we’ve done really well in growing sustainable businesses and attracting capital like the SPARC investment and others, but now we really need to focus on making sure we have the talent to keep up with that,” he said.

John McDermott of The Post and Courier contributed to this report. Reach Allison Prang at 843-937-5705 or follow her on Twitter @AllisonPrang.