A natural match: Metro tech companies need talent, while outstate Minnesota needs jobs
Dilema: Greater Minnesota needs jobs, while Metro tech firms need people. What if there was an overlapping solution? What if there was a way to bring tech jobs to the rest of Minnesota?
Doing so could increase the talent pool to businesses, normalize talent costs and bring jobs and wealth back to greater Minnesota. It may also help heal the economic and political rift between the Twin Cities and the rest of the state — and unite them around a shared vision of the future.
While the path forward is full of challenges — such as misconceptions about tech jobs, and the lack of infrastructure and capital — several outstate cities are already leading the way to a potential technological revolution.
Rochester: A new co-op space
Long-known for the Mayo Clinic and its burgeoning health care ecosystem, Rochester is also encouraging local startups, such as GoRout, which has attained national attention for its football helmet app. And less than a year ago, Jamie Sundsback launched Collider Coworking in downtown Rochester. The co-working space hosts meetups every week to discuss ways to build the startup community.
“Rochester is a traditional Minnesota city, risk-averse, with big successful companies and comfortable employees,” says Sundsback, who serves as the community manager of Collider. “But,” he says, “more people are beginning to understand the opportunity in the area. Tech entrepreneurship is happening here.”
Red Wing, creating pathways
Tech startups are also taking hold in Red Wing, a city known for its low-tech products like shoes and pottery.
One catalyst for building a startup community is Red Wing Ignite, an organization devoted to helping the community grow an innovative and entrepreneurial ecosystem. It is plugged in to a couple of dozen communities across the country doing the same thing through a national organization, US Ignite.
“US Ignite has helped us facilitate conversations and has provided support for ways to develop the entrepreneurial ecosystem” says the Executive Director of Red Wing Ignite, Neela Mollgaard. This applies to teachers and parents alike. Changing a community starts with awareness. “Education plays a key role in developing the ecosystem” says Mollgaard.
One of the biggest challenges facing education is having teachers with enough experience in technology to be able to teach the curriculum, while parents need to become aware of the opportunities to help their children get on the path of a good-paying job.
Mollgaard and Ignite are working on developing a STEAM education platform (science, technology, engineering, art, math, and design), bringing in organizations like TechnovationMN, Apps for Good and Coder Dojo. Ignite also partners with local colleges to focus curriculum on tech, and facilitate internship programs to expose kids to technology and entrepreneurship early on.
Options are abundant for parents and teachers to engage their kids with technology. Kids can get involved now with robots, video games, online courses, YouTube and online resources such as Scratch, a free, online, entry-level programming language developed by MIT to teach programming fundamentals to kids.
These efforts help move Red Wing forward, but much needs to be done. “Challenges are pretty universal — access to capital, lack of awareness and opportunity, and a lack of clear economic impact,” says Mollgaard.
Access is a very real issue for outstate areas. While some don’t have enough investors visiting, some don’t even have Internet access. Access to jobs is the most pressing thing. Most areas in greater Minnesota are not seen as a communities with tech talent or even an interest in tech. As tech has a misperception, so too does greater Minnesota.
Fargo, North Dakota & branding
To counteract this disconnect, cities can carve out their own brand. Tech is no longer isolated to single locations. It is evolving into a network of communities of talented people solving problems they are uniquely skilled at; therein lies the opportunity. In this way, rural areas can continue to develop the brand they are already skilled at, and bolster it by leveraging technology.
Fargo is building its brand and is booming with tech — especially drones. “Fargo is becoming a key player on the global stage with drone and precision agriculture technology,” says Greg Tehven, the executive director of Emerging Prairie, a nonprofit that promotes tech startups through events and a coworking space.
Says Tehven, “Emerging Prairie is here to connect and celebrate entrepreneurial ecosystems in three key ways: Connect people to help facilitate the network effect, provide platforms for entrepreneurs to share what they are doing, and support by helping startups find the first customers, partners, employees or investment.”
With this kind of support and innovation in a vertical that North Dakota is long known for, Fargo is quickly making the transition to being a part of something larger, a connected tech community. Many communities out there are. Tech is making an impact in outstate areas around the country. The talent is there, the opportunity is there, and it’s going to take both sides to make it happen.
Bridge project to rural Minnesota
Putting jobs back in rural areas is a big challenge and will require an intense amount of collaboration. It starts with an openness from both communities. This is ultimately a bridge project: two groups on different sides of the bridge working to connect in the middle.
Success means jobs in greater Minnesota and wealth moving back into local communities. Tech jobs have a multiplier effect. Studies have shown that for every tech job created, three to four other jobs in the community are created as well. This is a real opportunity to stop the talent drain and revitalize towns. New ideas outside of the traditional limits of urban centers can help companies grow and connect in new ways. Businesses will be fueled by talent at all levels, equalizing supply and demand.
It starts with a conversation. Leaders are needed on both sides to make this a priority.
Start a meetup. Start a coworking space. Make connections. Network. Find a counterpart that wants to work with someone to solve this problem.