Tech industry race is on both locally & nationally for talent

A native of New Jersey and graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Will LaBar doesn’t plan on moving away any time soon.

After locating here almost 20 years ago and now heading up Montreal-based CGI’s operations in Lafayette as vice president, LaBar eats crawfish and makes his own roux. He’s got a certificate signed by the mayor that declares him an “Honorary Cajun.”

He’s in a sector the Acadiana area wants to grow, along with a workforce to support it.

It’s been a trade-off of sorts for LaBar and his new hometown as CGI has become a shining star in Lafayette’s technology sector, which already has grown significantly since the company first broke ground on its Acadiana operations in 2015 with plans for 400 jobs.

The global information technology firm announced last year that it expects to add yet another 400 jobs by 2023. The company, LaBar noted, is a bit ahead of schedule in that.

The company has 100 openings right now, and the search has begun.

“If you have about 15 dot-net developers, we can probably get them going tomorrow,” he said. The open positions “span the gamut. I think by 2024 we will have hit 800. We’re going to continue the rapid growth that we’ve had.”

The company won’t be alone. As community leaders grow the tech sector in Acadiana, the challenge will be to fill those jobs at CGI, Waitr or other companies. The number of graduates from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette have grown in recent years, which gives companies a pool of talent to pick from.

It’s a shift from 2014, said Gregg Gothreaux, president and CEO of the Lafayette Economic Authority, when the university was producing more graduates than local job openings.

“Nationally, there is a shortage of experienced software developers,” he said. “Acadiana is competing with markets for these workers, but local companies have had success in attracting this specialized workforce.

“Having a network of tech-intensive companies with local upward mobility opportunities makes recruiting talent and other companies to the region easier.”

Chad Theriot will tell you he’s been around IT for a long time. There was the Tech South summit in 2005 at the Cajundome, where people got together and dreamed of creating an for themselves.

The term Silicon Bayou became popular. And once the film industry came seeking tech people and other companies started tech firms, the race for talent was on in an area where for years qualified people went looking elsewhere for employment.

“We knew that was coming for a long time,” said Theriot, a UL-Lafayette grad and president of CBM Technology in Breaux Bridge. “We’ve been a producer of tech people exports. It’s a brain drain. I was one of them. I left because there were no jobs here. I did great and then came home.

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“This whole IT surge is bringing a lot of people home, but we’re having to ramp up with number of people who understand IT in town.”

Theriot and his partners bought CBM in 2011, and staffers there do a number of services, including hardware, video, programming and software development. Software developers, he noted, can be hard to find.

“A lot of times software developers are weird birds,” he said. “I get it. We’re geeks. We make geeks look like normal people. But software developers need to fit into the communities they’re living in. We want to find someone who feels comfortable.”

Now companies are competing with nearby metro markets as the tech industry surges worldwide. DXC Technology has opened an office in New Orleans, with plans to employ 300 within a year and 2,000 by 2025.

IBM’s move to hold a job fair in Lafayette last month for its Baton Rouge operations may have raised eyebrows as an attempt to poach local tech talent.

The race for talent, especially in Louisiana, has begun.

“Everything we do as a company is to win the war on talent,” LaBar said. “This is about: ‘Does our community have the right ingredients to attract, retain and grow a workforce in this sector that now spans many sectors?’ When we’re recruiting, we have to hit all those different levers.”

Data from UL-Lafayette’s School of Computing and Informatics shows enrollment has climbed considerably in the past six years. In 2012-13, 436 students were enrolled in computer science and informatics programs, and that number rose to 666 in 2017-18 and 713 last fall.

The enrollment is ahead of schedule, said Ramesh Kolluru, vice president of research, innovation and economic development and professor at UL-Lafayette.

“It’s never been better as far as the job market and the opportunity to find employment in the Lafayette region,” Kolluru said. “We’ve always had a steady base of companies that have hired and continue to hire tech folks with the oil and gas sectors and so on. Do people have opportunities? Certainly the answer is better than they ever have before.”

Kolluru and the university actively work with CGI and other agencies on workforce needs. The state also has made commitments to keep those large tech companies anchored in Louisiana, which will provide careers for students without having to leave the state.

“They love the fact that they’re creating opportunities for our graduates,” Kolluru said. “But we also love they’re bringing in talent. For a state that has dealt with brain drain, that adds to our economy here, our culture and what we consider ourselves as a community. That’s very gratifying to see.”

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