By most anecdotal accounts, the technology workforce of Western New York hasn’t changed that much over the past decade.
This is what’s changed: M&T Bank and ACV Auctions are hiring technologists by the truckload. Odoo, Conversion Monster and Jerry are collectively hiring for hundreds of employees to support their tech-enabled businesses, from software to sales to customer service. Huron Consulting wants to double its Salesforce practice in Buffalo. Torch Labs is doubling its Larkinville-based engineering hub closing on $25 million in Series B funding.
And that is just a small sampling of the technology hiring initiatives that are underway in Buffalo. The competition for good workers who can work in tech has never been more urgent. Corporations in finance, health care, aerospace and food products need them. IT and cybersecurity firms need them. Growth-oriented startups need them.
“There is a massive demand on talent acquisition right now,” said Randy Harris, CEO of Lighthouse Technology Services. “Most companies are trying to figure out how to solve the problem of how to find tech talent, and it’s causing an incredible amount of stress and change.”
Harris’ technology staffing business is booming, a reflection of the acute situation regionally. He said that Buffalo looks a lot like the broader labor market, where the enormously competitive national need for tech talent is running into a broader labor crunch.
He also said the issue comes from a regional economy that is shifting with breakneck speed, with a growing collection of venture-funded software companies and the reality that tech is a big part of most businesses these days. The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the situation.
“You have a whole generation of business owners who didn’t prioritize technology investments realizing that the digital transformation is here and they have to do something about it,” he said.
Firms in Buffalo are building strategies around being attractive to workers, symbolized most prominently around M&T Bank’s $58 million Tech Hub in Seneca One Tower. The Start-Up NY tax breaks program is a sought-after designation that wipes out state sales taxes for the employees of qualified companies, a major consideration for highly paid engineers and commission-based employees. Renovations and new offices are being made with the preferences of a rising class of workers in mind.
Centivo is making sure it is competitive on traditional measures such as compensation and benefits, but more importantly, it is leaning into its mission-based pathway. The company, led by founder and CEO Ashok Subramanian, is headquartered in New York City but opened an office in Cheektowaga, where about 44 of its 136 employees now work. Centivo has developed a data-based health insurance plan that seeks to both lower costs and improve care.
“We’re doing pretty good on culture and mission, and when I say that, I’m not talking about things like ping pong tables and free food,” said Stephanie Argentine, Centivo’s chief people officer, who is based in Buffalo. “It’s about how the work and the organization make them feel.”
Argentine said the company is generally able to fill roles in Buffalo, but would still like to hire faster here. The company is also opening an office downtown for a new program, in partnership with a variety of education and workforce partners, that gives underemployed individuals the chance for positions in customer service and claims. Centivo hopes that program helps fill at least 35 new positions in Buffalo.
“Recruiting is hard, but it’s been that way for years now,” Argentine said. “The challenge is that we expected the dynamics to shift toward employers during the pandemic and it just didn’t happen.”
It takes a good bit of scrolling to get through the entirety of ACV’s careers page, where hundreds of available positions span its Buffalo headquarters, hubs in Toronto, Ohio and Florida, and in other markets it has entered across the U.S.
The company’s prominent position as Buffalo’s first software unicorn, and its vast hiring needs, symbolizes what others are up against.
“While it is a really competitive landscape, we are working hard to fill roles and build our talent pipeline,” said Sallie Reid, ACV’s vice president of people and culture. “We’ve been fortunate to execute at a high level to do that, and we’ve had great talent join our team in the past year in Buffalo and across the U.S. and Toronto area.”
Reid said the firm pairs compensation-based programs like total rewards benefits and zero-cost premiums with a message about the experience of being an ACV employee. As the firm grows quickly, ACV also offers development programs and upward mobility, she said.
“The most important thing for any employer is how you treat your employees,” she said. “They become your brand ambassadors. Then you have all the pieces in place to build a talent pipeline and to grow and develop your own teammates.”
Workforce is an ever-present discussion across every industry, and as the economy bounces back from the doldrums of 2020, it’s been exacerbated by extended unemployment benefits, childcare issues and the reticence by some potential employees to return to an office setting. Local factories are boosting wages, offering increased sign-on or referral bonuses and, in some cases, keeping job requisitions open indefinitely. Building contractors say they’re turning away work because they don’t have the employees to support it. From retail to restaurants to hotels to the professional services industry, the story is largely the same.
The question takes on added importance given the amount of civic, government and private sector attention that has been spent over the past decade in creating a robust startup economy. A core premise of that effort has been the availability of affordable talent here, relative to hot startup hubs. Talent in Buffalo is an oft-cited reason why companies apply to the 43North business competition, which offers prizes ranging from $500,000 to $1 million in exchange for pledging to operate from Buffalo for a year and 5% of their company. It was a major impetus for the decisions by Odoo and Torch to make major investments in Buffalo, despite being headquartered elsewhere. It’s one of the reasons why AML Rightsource, a financial services firm based in Cleveland, decided to start hiring in Buffalo and is now moving into Seneca One Tower
The question is whether the supposed advantage is now a governor on what’s possible in Buffalo.
The upshot is there are a variety of significant initiatives aimed at the problem. M&T’s Tech Academy aims to reach into the community and develop new workers, both for the bank and other employers. A consortium of business leaders from Buffalo and Rochester are working to convince bitWise academy, an education, training and jobs company, to come to the region. TechBuffalo – funded by Empire State Development Corp. and the Western New York Impact Investment Fund – is seeking to create thousands of tech workers in Buffalo in the coming years.
Harris, a TechBuffalo co-founder and board member, said that if the talent crunch is a question in Buffalo, the answer is still being written. If the challenge is tackled in an organized and collaborative manner – TechBuffalo is looking for business partners to get involved in the effort – it could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“We have people who are living in a cycle of poverty who can’t build careers or meet their personal financial goals,” he said. “We need to provide them training opportunities in the technology space, give them support and educate them, give them hands-on experiences that help them grow. I think we’ll look back a generation from now and be floored at the prosperity and the opportunities that have been created.”