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Breed talent or lose ground in tech race

We hear it every day — we’re in a war for tech talent. Companies are desperate to find and retain talent. This is true across the nation, and we constantly hear about how this shortage of skills is draining profitability. So why aren’t we doing more about it?

Well, Twitter has taken a huge step to ensure its own company is stocked with skilled techies. The company recently announced Twitter University, dedicated to giving its engineers technical training and continued growth. To build on its existing programs, Twitter purchased Marakana, a startup dedicated to tech training, to be the brains and brawn behind the new university.

Kudos to Twitter for taking an innovative step. For too long, companies have refused to cultivate their own talent, and I’m so glad to see one realize that a key solution to the ongoing talent problem is developing and investing in the continuous education of its own workforce.

But this is just one company. As other companies follow suit, this presents a huge opportunity for Chicago to strengthen its own already-solid tech scene. We need to breed our own talent — it’s not going to come to us from other U.S. markets, or abroad, or even from company to company within the Chicago area. It’s no surprise that my conversations with a variety of our 600-plus ITA members reveal that one of their biggest challenges is finding qualified talent. So let’s get on the ball and fix this. I’m tired of lagging behind other cities in the tech war.

We have options already at our fingertips. Interestingly, organizations right here in Chicago are knocking it out of the park when it comes to tech-training programs.

The Starter League teaches professionals how to code, design and ship Web apps. Forte Knowledge offers classes to up developers’ skills. Dev Bootcamp offers intensive training for Web developers.Tribeca Flashpoint College is breeding amazing talent in digital media arts. Even Northwestern University recently announced certificates in mobile development.

But we’ve yet to see most Chicago tech companies step up and make in-house training a core part of their employees’ professional development. The training schools here haven’t seen a rush for ongoing development from the vast tech industry and local corporations — and that needs to change now. If we want Chicago to be a world-class tech hub, we need to start acting like one. All technology companies need to think seriously about how they are training not only during onboarding, but on an ongoing basis. Or Chicago can just continue to be left behind. As Twitter University gets underway, who will follow suit? Chicago companies must step up and start breeding their own talent, right here within our vibrant Chicago tech scene. We have easy access to the schooling, so we’re already headed in the right direction. If Chicago is serious about becoming a leader in tech, we need to make professional development a core part of what our companies do. If we expect to attract and retain exceptional talent, we need to develop it, too. It’s just smart business.

This op-ed appeared in Crain’s Chicago Business on August 29, 2013.

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