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The Class of 2007

Monday, May 21, 2007 at 2:02 PM

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Colleges and universities send this year's crop of seniors out into the so-called real world this month. And many of the region's cutting edge companies hope to lure some of them into their workforces. Many would like to see Greater Cleveland rank with the likes of Boston or San Francisco for high tech innovation and growth, but there are obstacles - including, some contend, a shortage of talent. In a moment, ideastream's economics reporter Tasha Flournoy takes a look at how area companies struggle to recruit young qualified workers. But first, ideastream's education reporter Dan Bobkoff introduces us to a couple of the region's best and brightest graduates.

Rob Swinton is the kind of guy Cleveland would love to keep in town. The 23-year-old graduated this past weekend from the Cleveland Institute of Art, and during his years there, his industrial design work has won national accolades. As he prepared to leave CIA a few weeks back, he showed me his complete redesign of a spray paint bottle.

The project won first place at the International Housewares Association student design competition in March. But while Swinton has had internships and done some freelance work in the region, this summer he’s packing up for San Francisco.

Rob Swinton: I’m just excited about the idea of being in a place that’s bigger than this. Different, exciting and new.

Swinton landed a gig at Lunar Design, a company that crafts everything from printers to toothbrushes. He says there are design firms in this area, and freelance opportunities abound. But there’s a trendiness factor that this city just can’t compete with.

Rob Swinton: From my experience, living and working in a place like Boston, San Francisco, New York is more desirable. Maybe that’s just from my standpoint.

For Swinton, part of the allure of the west coast is just having a new experience and getting out of his comfort zone. And he says the company he’ll be working for in San Francisco is more cutting edge, and works on a bigger variety of projects than firms here.

While the city is losing Swinton to San Francisco, researcher Mark Salling says Cleveland is not losing as many educated workers as you might think.

Mark Salling: In fact, we see in terms of the older age cohorts, 35 and older, we actually see a return of college educated people in that age group.

Salling researches demographic trends with Cleveland State University’s Urban College. For all the talk of brain drain, he says less educated people are leaving Northeast Ohio more quickly than those with college degrees.

Mark Salling: We may have a difficult time attracting the young, recently educated professional, but I think the region is apparently, a pretty attractive place for families and a little older, middle aged if you will because we see in the numbers that we’re attracting those people back here.

That’s not say recent graduates can’t be attracted to Northeast Ohio. Every now and then you meet someone like Kimberly Sullivan.

Kimberly Sullivan: I really like the fact that it is such a great city for a young person.

Sullivan just graduated with a degree in business management from Case Western Reserve University, and she’s excited about her new job with Brulant, an IT firm in Beachwood. Sullivan’s take on Cleveland must be welcome news to anyone trying to market the region.

Kimberly Sullivan: I think there’s a lot of opportunities for professionally for young people here in Cleveland. And no one really takes advantage of the fact that these companies aren’t giving you purely entry-level jobs, they’re giving you entry-level jobs that give you a lot of responsibility.

Sullivan comes from Williamstown, Massachusetts, but she’s smitten with Cleveland. Even her family is moving to town soon. But, companies are having a tough time finding more workers like Kim Sullivan. ideastream’s Tasha Flournoy picks up that part of the story:

Len Pagon started his interactive marketing and web design company Brulant in the basement of his parents home nearly 20 years ago. Today, the Beachwood company employs 320 workers. 65 were hired just this year. Brulant continues to grow, but like some other tech companies in the regions, it has trouble filling positions. Within the last year, they’ve had to open offices in Boston and Chicago to recruit qualified workers.

Len Pagon: We’re obviously committed to the region. And we’re hiring people. We just can’t find enough, especially again the very skilled people or senior people we have to look in other places in addition to Northeast Ohio.

Right now Northeast Ohio has about 5,000 unfilled healthcare and IT jobs - that’s according to an analysis of help-wanted ads done jointly by the development groups Nor-Tech and Bio-Enterprise. Pagon says there are two reasons he went outside the region for talent: The region lacks an established information technology market and Cleveland is a hard sell.

Len Pagon: We have an easier time to relocate people to New England or Chicago. Unless somebody has family in Cleveland or they have to a convincing reason to move to Cleveland we won’t even fly them in to do an interview.

Other companies report similar recruiting struggles. Bedford-based Ben Venue is the largest contract manufacturer of sterile, injectable drugs. About three fourths of their employees are in production and hired locally, says recruiter Gretchen Roche. But to fill the remaining high-level, senior positions, the company has better luck reaching out to stronger bio-pharmaceutical markets.

Gretchen Roche: We’re a pharmaceutical company and there’s not any companies that do exactly what we do in this area. Even though there’s biotech companies, as far as the actual work there aren’t any other pharmaceutical companies. So it’s hard to find that exact skill set here.

Besides national recruitment, companies are enlisting area institutions to help with recruiting and training skilled workers. Brulant works with Miami, Case Western Reserve and Kent State Universities. Ben Venue works with Tech Prep, Cuyahoga Community College’s high school workforce development program.

Relationships like these may give the high-tech workforce a boost, but Brad Nellis says not enough students are enrolled in tech programs. Nellis is director of NEOSA, the IT trade association branch of the Council of Smaller Enterprises in Cleveland. He says students still remember the job woes of the dot.com crash nearly 10 years ago.

Brad Nellis: A lot of students that had previously been enrolling in tech disciplines have stopped enrolling in them. So really for probably the last two years, tech enrollment at area universities has probably dropped on average 25 to 40%, depending on the university.

Dennis Roberts, director of the Cuyahoga County Workforce Development board, says local companies will continue to have difficulties in recruiting until they identify the gaps in their workforce.

Dennis Roberts: We’ve actually had focus groups with IT companies for example and what we’ve found is, it’s hard to get companies to agree on what the need is.

That need, Roberts says, is individual to each company. He says companies should collaborate with groups such as his to recruit the right kind of workers. Once employers fill those jobs, the next step is figuring out ways to keep them filled. Tasha Flournoy, 90.3.

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