Ami Sarnowski | chief innovation officer, Genesis10

As technology giants Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google choose to build data centers in Greater Des Moines and tech startups target the Silicon Prairie, CIOs in the region may want to rethink their strategy for attracting and retaining tech workers.

Des Moines has a lot going for it: It’s a top 10 best city to live and work, a best city for jobs, a top 10 place with the most job opportunities per capita and the No. 1 city for economic strength. 

These accolades are due to the talented workforce, impressive education ranking and strong business economy, according to the Greater Des Moines Partnership. Not to mention Iowa’s large inventory of available land, low energy costs, high portfolio of renewable energy and low risk of natural disasters as reasons for choosing the Silicon Prairie.

“Having Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft in this market — with not only significant capital investments, but collectively a number of high-tech jobs — sends a powerful message across the globe that Greater Des Moines is a hub for the tech industry,” said Jay Byers, CEO at the Greater Des Moines Partnership, in a recent article.

Agreeing, Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, said, “Data centers like Apple’s serve as the foundation to building a wider technology ecosystem. “They are fundamental to the growth of the technology industry in Iowa.”

Although data centers are a foundation to a technology ecosystem, what sustainable impact will they have on the wider state economy? Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson has said that Apple’s project will have little impact on the wider state economy.

What may affect the economy is Iowa’s low unemployment rate, at 3.2 percent in September, indicates there’s a labor shortage, a trend likely to continue, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS expects employment to grow faster than average through 2024 as technology evolves and technology expertise is needed.

This concerns leaders such as Jeffrey Springborn, COO at LightEdge Solutions, who said that out-of-state tech companies have strained the local talent pool, with Facebook recruiting away “our talent” for its data center. “There is a thin tech community here. It’s more stealing resources than adding to the pile.”

It does not bode well for smaller tech companies or legacy Des Moines companies such as Principal Financial Group, Meredith Corp., EMC Insurance and Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, among others.

Taking action, concerned CEOs and CIOs in Central Iowa along with Des Moines Area Community College have formed the IT Partnership Board to address critical talent shortages. The group’s initial target: Grow talent skilled in application development, agile methodologies and cybersecurity.

More recently, the Iowa Department of Education worked on legislation to help shape the future of career and technical education. They are introducing exploratory coursework earlier to better prepare students for higher-level training. And, in the spring, legislation was signed that creates high-quality computer science instruction and the development of recommended standards. 

These efforts, while commendable and necessary, will support a long-term approach to develop future IT talent, but they don’t address the more immediate talent gap facing many CIOs in Greater Des Moines and other metropolitan areas in the Silicon Prairie. 

“The unintended consequence of the region’s attractiveness to tech giants and its subsequent growth will affect the supply of talent available to legacy companies in Des Moines,” said Guy Arnone, managing director at Genesis10 in Des Moines.

As these companies struggle to compete to attract and retain talent, CIOs may need to evaluate their workforce strategies and consider different tactics, such as relocation of tech talent from other markets, reskilling workers and/or leveraging underutilized, but highly skilled, talent pools.