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Lansing to tech workers: Come back, we're cooler now

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LANSING – Said Taiym isn't necessarily proud of the way he used to fill vacancies in AF Group's IT department, but everyone else was doing it, too.

He would use LinkedIn to find skilled IT workers at other Lansing companies and try to convince them to jump ship.

“I put my Said charm on," Taiym joked. He's the CIO of AF Group, a workers' compensation insurance company with an IT workforce of more than 100. It's headquartered in downtown Lansing. "I’ve talked to well over 300 people. I don’t make them get off the phone until they give me another name. I’ve probably hired seven or eight people that way.”

Companies in the Lansing region are struggling with a shortage of senior-level IT workers, and not just technology companies but banks, insurance companies, government agencies and colleges.

At times, that shortage has created some fierce competition. Poaching in the industry isn't uncommon, said Andrea Ragan, executive director of the Capital Area IT Council.

“All employers have the same needs," she said, "so that means they are all in competition with each other."

And in competition with companies in bigger markets: Detroit, Chicago and Silicon Valley.

“The problem is that everyone is leaving,” Ragan said.

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So Lansing companies are trying to find better ways to compete. To start with, Taiym and other CIOs in the region have agreed to stop luring talented employees from one another.

They're also banding together through the IT Council to keep the skilled workers they've got and to recruit skilled candidates from elsewhere by leveraging family ties, the presence of Michigan State University and the growing ambitions of the bar and restaurant scene.

The pitch in a nutshell: Lansing will never be Detroit or Chicago, but the cost of living is much cheaper, and everything is within a 20-minute drive. It has enough bars, breweries and restaurants to keep people downtown for hours and more are on the way. It's also a place where people settle down with their family, a region with some of the best schools in the state, even home to a Big Ten university.

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The shortage is nothing new, but if it persists, it can impact efficiency and security, make businesses more susceptible to cyberattacks, cause them to lag behind the competition.

"IT has become a major part of the foundation that lots of businesses are leaning on," she said.  "Without the talent necessary to sustain this activity, businesses are going to be hurting. It's not a viable option in the future."

A regional competition

Roughly 7,300 people work in IT in Greater Lansing and at least 500 jobs still need to be filled.

There is no shortage of applicants. It's applicants with the right experience that are in short supply.

"Finding experienced talent is really our biggest concern," said Richard Laing, COO of Spartan-Net, a high-speed internet provider based in East Lansing with 35 employees.

Even though entry-level applicants are not hard to come by, the majority of new MSU computer science grads end up working elsewhere. In 2014, four of the top 10 employers of those graduates were in metro Detroit, according to a 2015 survey. Only two were in the Lansing region.

That's not because Lansing pays much less. In some jobs, the median salary was actually higher in Lansing than in Chicago, Grand Rapids or Detroit, according to the most recent wage data from Michigan and Illinois.

"Money is not an issue," said Taiym, who is also chair of the IT council. "It's about the persona of not being a big city."

But, sometimes, a few of the right amenities are enough.

Rusty Allswede, a senior network administrator for AF Group, decided to stay in Lansing partly because of the region's growing beer scene.

He likes the Lansing Brewing Co., and thinks breweries help to get people walking around town and exploring.

"For some reason, IT talent follows the beer scene," Allswede said.

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Retaining and attracting new talent

A crowd of 60 IT workers from across the region huddled in the back warehouse of Lansing Brewing Co. With beers and mixed drinks in hand, they mingled in small groups, exchanging business cards, sharing advice or even looking for a new job.

A line had formed near the free food. There was cornhole and a giant Jenga game. No one was playing.

This was a Capital Area IT Council networking event. It's one of the ways the council tries to get the industry working together instead of hiring employees away from one another. The council is made up of over 60 businesses, educators, recruiters and economic development groups.

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"You get the opportunities to learn about what the other companies are doing," said Kim Bailey, the vice president of information technology at Michigan Farm Bureau Insurance. "It's a great way to connect with people."

Bailey was sipping on a Spartan Dawgs Pale Wheat, catching up with Taiym.

"You need very good relationships with CIOs," Taiym said. "There's been a lot more collaboration. We're always having a back and forth."

Collaboration between employers on the council can help retain employees. Bailey said if an employee is thinking of leaving the company, he would share their resume with Taiym or another CIO in the hopes that person can find another job in the Lansing area.

It adds to the growing sense community in the industry, Bailey said.

The council hosted another sort of networking event on the day before Thanksgiving. It was called Capital Comeback and targeted people returning to the area for the holidays.

The idea was to get professionals who work out of state to meet some of Lansing's largest IT employers, hoping they might consider coming back here to work. It drew 53 people and 11 employers.

"When people visit their families, they may be looking for a lifestyle change," Ragan said. "They may want to be closer to family and friends. The event was a way to say, 'Look what has happened since you left; time to rethink the area.' People walked away with relationships with these employers."

The state of Michigan is the largest IT employer in the region, but due to budget constraints, it has adopted a different approach to acquiring talent and competing with the private sector.

It recruits interns from colleges around the state. If they intern for two years and obtain an associate's degree, they are offered a job, said James McFarlane, director of agency services for the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, which employ's 1,725 people in IT.

Because the state cannot pay as much for senior talent as the private sector, it focuses on training its staff for higher-level jobs. Other times, it will partner with the private sector to complete large projects, McFarlane said.

"We're never going to be able to compete with the Microsofts and companies in the Silicon Valley," McFarlane said, "but one thing we can do is (offer) a great paying job with great benefits. And you'll also have a family life."

A reason to stay

When Jerry Norris is trying to "steal someone" from Chicago or Boston, he shows them Michigan State University and then he shows them Old Town.

"In Old Town, there's a rich set of restaurants and places you can go for a drink," said Norris, who is a business acceleration consultant for the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, basically a headhunter for Lansing's IT industry. "If a bar is too crowded you can go to the next one ... that's what you do in places like Chicago. There's something more to do than just go home after work."

Lansing has been trying to get that point across for years, with mixed success.

The city has no problem landing cool attractions. An arcade bar, two breweries and a slider bar are all slated to open later this year, to name a few. It's had a harder time keeping some of these places open, like The Beer Grotto and Eden Rock.

But officials point to the influx of development along the Michigan Avenue corridor as a sign of Lansing's renaissance, to the $90 million SkyVue project near Frandor Shopping Center, the Arcadia Ales & Smokehouse being built on the 2100 block of East Michigan Avenue and the two mixed-use projects from developer Scott Gillespie that will add more apartments, a taphouse and bakery to the 2000 and 2200 block of East Michigan Avenue.

And that's not to mention the three skyscrapers that developers are planning to build in the heart of downtown East Lansing.

"People stereotype Lansing like they used to stereotype Detroit," Ragan said. "Lansing's renaissance is not as well-known as Detroit's or Grand Rapids'."

"There's an up-and-coming scene for food, beer and nightlife here. There are pockets of downtown where you have lots of options to choose from."

Doug Miller used to work as a network architect for Rocket Fiber, planning network construction for the company's projects in Detroit, some of which were for Dan Gilbert.

He lived in East Lansing the entire 15 months he worked at Rocket Fiber and was seriously considering moving his family to Grosse Pointe.

But Miller ended up working out a better deal with Spartan-Net in East Lansing, and he decided to stay.

Spartan-Net has offered internet service to apartment complexes owned by companies such as DTN Management, Gillespie Group and Cron Management for the past 15 years. Miller now oversees the installation of the network infrastructure when developments are built.

The pay is better, but Miller also wanted to keep his family in East Lansing.

"I wouldn't want to raise my kids anywhere else,"  he said. "Having MSU and the state capital here, I find it very appealing. It has a lot to offer a family."

Alexander Alusheff is a reporter at the Lansing State Journal. Contact him at (517) 388-5973 or Follow him on Twitter @alexalusheff.

Capital Area IT Council Lunch & Learn

When: 11 a.m. April 20

Where: The View inside the Cooley Law School Stadium, 505 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing

Topic: Cybersecurity and workforce impact, presented by Kelley Goldblatt, cyber intel analyst for the Michigan State Police's Cyber Command Center.

For more info contact Andrea Ragan at

What region pays more for IT jobs?

Database Administrator

Lansing: $91,707

Detroit: $90,625

Chicago: $80,870

Grand Rapids: $73,424

Computer Systems Analyst

Detroit: $89,848

Chicago: $87,235

Lansing: $68,804

Grand Rapids $63,460

Computer Programmer

Lansing: $78,332

Chicago: $75,545

Detroit: $71,739

Grand Rapids: $68,099

Information Security Analyst

Chicago: $92,456

Detroit: $87,006

Grand Rapids: $79,289

Lansing: $78,332

Web Developer

Chicago: $74,089

Lansing: $72,571

Detroit: $62,254

Grand Rapids: $58,656

*Data taken from the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget and the Illinois Department of Employment Security. Data reflects mean salaries from 2015.