Maryland has the goods; it just needs the plan.
That’s the take-home message from a panel of experts who spoke Tuesday about advancing Maryland’s technology industry by playing up the region’s strengths and making better use of existing assets, such as the talented workforce and prestigious anchor institutions.
The session was held in Hanover, at the regional headquarters of AT&T Inc., which partnered with the Greater Baltimore Committee, a business association, and the Tech Council of Maryland, a trade group, to host the event.
“Maryland is a phenomenal market for AT&T because you have all the ingredients for success already here,” said Denis Dunn, AT&T’s regional vice president for external affairs, citing the state’s relative wealth compared to others and its high-performing universities and hospitals — which he said are prime customers for advanced, newly developed technologies.
Despite the state’s strong education systems, technology companies can’t find qualified people to fill their vacant positions, several panelists said. That means tech firms can’t expand as quickly as they would like, so they aren’t generating as much economic activity as they could be.
“For us, recruiting is the No. 1 challenge,” said Marc Mercilliott, senior vice president of technical operations for Iron Bow Technologies, an information technology firm based in Chantilly, Va. “It becomes very expensive and it’s very difficult. I mean, ultimately, most talented folks are not looking for jobs. So you end up having to spend a lot of time trying to find the right people.”
The primary problem is not a lack of talent, Mercilliott said, but poor communication among universities and community colleges, staffing agencies, technology companies and job-seekers themselves.
Yair Flicker, president of SmartLogic Solutions LLC, a web and mobile app developer based in the Emerging Technology Centers in Canton, said cities should do more to keep local talent in the area, and suggested new kinds of tax credits to do that.
“I know for me, as a business owner, if there were a tax incentive to hire somebody who moved here from out-of-state for college [because we want] to keep them here, that might make me go to jobs fairs and try a little harder to hire somebody like that,” he said. “On the flipside, it would help if college graduates were given some kind of tax break to look for local jobs here.”
Tax credits of that sort would likely be a “tough sell” in the legislature, but are still worth considering, said Ursula Powidzki, assistant secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.
There were a variety of perspectives represented on the panel, and audience member Mary E. Kuna, a coordinator with the Cecil County Office of Economic Development, said she appreciated the diversity.
For example, both the massive AT&T and the medium-sized Iron Bow Technologies, have had difficulty filling skilled positions, according to Dunn and Mercilliott, but Flicker said he has the opposite problem. He said qualified people are lining up to work for his two startups — he also founded TeamPassword, which manages common passwords for people working on the same project — but he doesn’t have enough money to bring on more employees.
Kuna said she was intrigued by how the recruiting experiences of older, more established companies, like AT&T, are different than the experiences of a startup.
“So it’s interesting to look at whether there’s actually a lack of talent that exists, or if it’s that people are selective about what kind of company they want to work for,” Kuna said.
Many of the themes explored during the session weren’t earth-shattering — over the past few years, business groups and others have taken to pointing out Maryland’s increased visibility on the national technology scene, throwing around phrases like “epicenter of innovation” when describing what Maryland should become.
But as shown by the session’s title — “Taking Maryland to the Next Level in Technology” — the goal was to focus on the steps ahead, rather than past progress. Several panelists explicitly recognized that repetitiveness, and seemed to make an effort to offer new perspectives or greater detail about established goals.
“It’s fairly familiar territory for a lot of us to talk about this,” said Powidzki, when asked about the state’s entrepreneurship in the tech sector and how public and private sectors could boost that activity.
Dunn answered the question from the telecommunications industry perspective, emphasizing how to leverage private investment in various technology sectors more effectively. AT&T has invested an average of $20 billion a year for the past five years in telecommunications infrastructure nationwide, he said, including about $650 million in Maryland over past two years.
The company would like to see those investments “unencumbered” by government regulations that dictate what kind of infrastructure must be built, which he said would give private industry more control over where to invest.
“We would like to vertically target certain industries, which are already in place in Maryland,” he said. “Medicine — I mean, you have the leading medical institutions in the world. Telemedicine is going to be the future; we need improved investment there. Education — again the precedent is already set in Maryland. Let’s further capitalize on it.”