Some workers are indifferent about Indianapolis. Here’s how companies are changing that.

By Alexandria Burris

This piece was originally published by The Indy Star (Sept. 3, 2019).

At the Indy Chamber’s spring State of the Region address at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, Chamber President and CEO Michael Huber said Central Indiana's bid to lure Amazon’s second headquarters reaffirmed what many employers suspected: how indifferent people outside Indianapolis feel about the city.

“On the East and West coasts, we deal with more of a nonperception than we deal with a negative perception,” Huber said after the event.

That impression is well-known to those in Indianapolis’ technology sector, where rapid growth has startups and established companies as well scrambling to fill jobs.

The Indianapolis lifestyle, some critics say, lacks. 

Leaders in the city's technology sector believe otherwise. The problem isn't amenities but rather awareness.

"There is a lack of brand recognition," said Mike Langellier, president and CEO of TechPoint, an organization that promotes the local tech community. "We see it firsthand."

Travis Herring, a student-support specialist, works at the Kenzie Academy, a campus-based and online school for students pursuing jobs in the tech industry.   (Photo: Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar)

Travis Herring, a student-support specialist, works at the Kenzie Academy, a campus-based and online school for students pursuing jobs in the tech industry. (Photo: Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar)

To help change how people think of Indianapolis, the chamber and groups in the tech sector are devising new marketing strategies to attract future workers. They have seen some signs of success, but challenges persist.

The stakes are evident. The best workers want to work where they want to live. 

Competing for workers

The economic development game has changed, Huber said. The future lies in human capital.

Thriving communities are good at developing homegrown talent, creating new opportunities for workers, and attracting people from abroad. 

Companies like Amazon are locating where their employees want to live, work and play. Everything else — traditional interests such as taxes, regulations and business climate — is a distant second, third and fourth, Huber said.

“The future is really about talent. It's not about low cost. It's not about, you know, low taxes,” Huber said in an interview after the event. “It's about (being) a place where talent can really flourish and talented individuals can succeed.”

The tech sector in the Indianapolis-Carmel-Anderson metropolitan area, which includes large corporations such as Salesforce, Kronos and Infosys, added roughly 1,600 new jobs last year, according to a 2019 report from the nonprofit trade group Computing Technology Industry Association. Industry jobs topped 41,421 while occupation-related jobs reached 52,558. 

Statewide tech jobs numbered more than 185,000, the association said.

How significant is that? There are 147,000 construction workers in Indiana, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

It’s not that Indianapolis and its tech sector are ignored. The city was a top 20 finalist for Amazon's second headquarters and its 50,000 high-paying jobs. 

Huber and other economic development officials say the feedback from Amazon was overwhelmingly positive, with the retail giant noting the sophistication of Central Indiana's regional bid.

Indianapolis lost out on its HQ2 bid, and on the same day found out Nashville was picked for another Amazon facility and its 5,000 high-paying jobs.

Patrick Hansen oversees a session at the Kenzie Academy in Indianapolis.   (Photo: Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar)

Patrick Hansen oversees a session at the Kenzie Academy in Indianapolis. (Photo: Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar)

"We do know that one of the reasons they chose Nashville as a third location is because the brand attractiveness of the place is attracting people and in-migrating talent at a very high rate," TechPoint's Langellier said.

Indianapolis simply needs to do a better job of telling the story of who it is and what it has to offer to a diverse audience, the chamber said.

'You live in Indiana. Why?'

Persuasion may not come easy. 

Audrea DiLiberto has worked in tech for 17 years, long enough to develop her expertise in voice-over-IP networking and communications as a service. 

She has lived in Indianapolis for 15 years. But she isn't convinced that marketing the region's quality of life is enough to attract tech workers from other states.

"We just can't offer people the kind of experiences that they're getting in Mountain View, California; in San Jose, California; in Palo Alto, California," she said. 

Students at the Kenzie Academy are assigned a room, and they can name it after a loved one. In this case a pet named Gunther.   (Photo: Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar)

Students at the Kenzie Academy are assigned a room, and they can name it after a loved one. In this case a pet named Gunther. (Photo: Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar)

DiLiberto worked for Interactive Intelligence, a local tech company that in 2016 was acquired for $1.4 billion by California-based Genesys, which sells customer and call center technology to businesses. About a year and a half after the acquisition, DiLiberto's division was eliminated, and she lost her team manager position.

She had no problem getting multiple interviews for tech positions at other Indianapolis companies, but she quickly learned she was expected to take a steep pay cut. She was unwilling to do that. 

Looking back, DiLiberto wonders whether her gender played a role in finding a new Indianapolis-based tech job that would match her wage trajectory. 

"Indiana is not a particularly progressive place," she said. "Technology is definitely a boys club — even nationally there's been plenty of problems with that. And I wonder if Indiana is slow to evolve in that sense."

DiLiberto now works remotely for Cognizant, a New Jersey-based multinational tech firm that met her salary expectations, which she declined to reveal. She spends her days working remotely and traveling. 

"I meet co-workers that are like, 'You live in Indiana. Why?'" she said. She responds by telling them that her flights are shorter, rent is more affordable and her cost of living is lower overall, permitting a lifestyle that would be more difficult to have in high-cost  cities. 

Her co-workers, she said, still aren't convinced Indiana is a great place for them to live.

Building brand awareness

Every summer, TechPoint surveys college interns about their perceptions of Indianapolis. The organization operates Xtern, a 10-week summer internship program that links high-caliber tech- and business-skilled students with opportunities at local companies.

Interns get professional networking opportunities and skills development and are introduced to the city and its amenities. 

Roughly 1,800 applicants from 43 states applied for the 2019 program. This summer's class was the largest—with 68 companies hosting 168 interns. Most applicants, 1,300, were from Indiana universities.

Yearly surveys are administered to the interns. According to the latest results, 39 percent had a positive impression of Indianapolis before the program. Only 24 percent were likely to commit to a full-time job in Indianapolis after graduation.

But after the program, 95 percent of Xterns surveyed have a positive impression of the city, and 72 percent said they were likely to commit to a job. 

Langellier attributes the lack of awareness to limited exposure to the city, particularly among youth in the suburbs. 

He also points to the city's distance from the state's major universities. Among Indiana University, Purdue University and Ball State, the latter is closest at roughly 55 miles northeast of Indianapolis. 

“We literally have hundreds of thousands of students every year that are doing a sort of educational tourism through our state and only getting exposed to the rural small-town perspective," he said. 

All of this, Langellier said, inhibits the ability of local tech companies to find new workers for available jobs. He compares the process to launching and selling a new, unknown product.

“Every time you try to sell that product you have to convince and educate every person and every business owner,” he said. “Juxtapose that with an effective brand and marketing strategy, they start to come to you because they know what you stand for, they know what you do. They know your virtues, and as a result, that interest becomes inbound.”

Indianapolis business leaders reach out

To help craft a narrative for Indianapolis, the Indy Chamber and area tech leaders are launching new initiatives to aggressively market Indianapolis to current and future workers.

Since Huber's State of the Region address, the Indy Chamber has a renewed focus on two pillars in its five-year Accelerate Indy regional economic development plan: talent retention and crafting a vibrant and inviting image of the region. 

Rather than employ billboard or TV campaigns, the chamber will turn to local events, such as this summer's Indyfluence, a day of service that reintroduced corporate interns to Indianapolis through community service. 

Meanwhile, TechPoint is scouring the country to find former Hoosiers working in the tech sector to persuade them to come home.

The organization will roll out the red carpet for 25 job candidates during one weekend in October, providing them and their guests with unique networking experiences, meetings with employers and events showcasing the city's recreation and entertainment. 

“Former Hoosiers who already have an affinity for their home state just need a reason to come back,” Langellier said. “We have hundreds of good-paying reasons.”

Another effort is geared toward training new workers locally. 

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Chok Leang Ooi, co-founder and CEO of Indianapolis-based Kenzie Academy, lived as a student in Indianapolis over 20 years ago. After college, he took a job on Wall Street and later ended up working in Silicon Valley. 

"I had to leave the state back then because there weren't a lot of tech jobs," Ooi said. 

He was living in San Francisco and noticed that his friends who ran tech companies were frustrated with how much they were paying employees that would eventually leave for higher-paying jobs. 

So when he returned to Indianapolis a few years ago, Ooi saw an opportunity in a city that looked much different from the city he left. 

He knew coastal tech companies are seeking to open second campuses and were looking for access to high-quality talent. Places like Indiana have that, he said. 

But Ooi said the only thing lacking is the right skills training. So he launched Kenzie Academy in 2018 to provide a shorter pathway to a career in tech in Central Indiana. 

Kenzie, operates in partnership with Butler University, and provides an alternative education to four-year college. Kenzie isn't like a traditional school. There are no lecture halls or classrooms. The school looks like a tech startup with lounges, bean bags, working desks and sleeping pods. 

The first cohort of 20 students started nearly a year and a half ago, and the school is on track to enroll 350 students this year. All students are encouraged to work in Central Indiana, Ooi said. The apprenticeship programs range from six months to two years in length, depending on the course of study.

"We want to train people on the right skills so that it makes it attractive for, you know, other companies besides Amazon that would consider opening an HQ2 in Indiana, but also create enough talent that local homegrown tech companies can continue to thrive without having to move to another city if they want to continue to grow," he said. 

Contact IndyStar reporter Alexandria Burris at aburris@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter: @allyburris.