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Downtown Workforce: The center of Boise attracts employers looking for skilled, creative people

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Today, more than 40,000 people work in the downtown area, and it’s an incredibly diverse group,” says Lynn Hightower, executive director of the Downtown Boise Association (DBA).

The downtown features jobs ranging from dining to retail, from hospitality to tech. A dominating factor among much of the workforce is the “creative economy,” says Hightower. Workers in the creative economy are those who use creative problem solving skills every day for jobs that cross the lines of arts, culture, business and technology.

Like many other cities around the country, Boise downtown faces a challenge in attracting and developing more high-demand workers to power the growing creative economy. That, however, may be mitigated by low unemployment and a lower cost of living than other booming metro areas, such as Seattle and San Francisco.

The pipeline

Click the cover to read and download the 2019 Downtown Boise publication.

Click the cover to read and download the 2019 Downtown Boise publication in which this story is included.

Workforce pipeline is one of the primary factors considered by companies moving to the Boise area, says Clark Krause, executive director of the Boise Valley Economic Partnership (BVEP).

“It’s all about the talent,” he says. “If you don’t have the talent, they’re not coming.”

Every year, companies come to examine the Boise downtown to determine whether it is a good fit. More and more companies are looking at Boise, Krause says. In the past three years, for example, the number of companies that came doubled.

Krause’s organization helps connect companies considering the Boise area with educational institutions and local companies to help them determine whether the talent pool is a good fit.

In the Boise area, a group of agencies works together to assess and meet the needs for training and education to ensure there is a viable workforce able to meet employers’ needs. One of those agencies is Idaho Career Technical Education.

Dwight Johnson, state administrator for ICTE, explains that his agency’s mission is to help fund and administer training programs to “prepare a talent pipeline.”

ICTE funds career technical education programs in Idaho school districts to help students explore careers and connect to education programs and job opportunities. It also helps fund six technical colleges in the state, including the College of Western Idaho in Nampa, and helps facilitate workforce training through local companies and public education institutions. This training is guided by the Idaho Workforce Development Council, which coordinates state agencies such as the ICTE, along with educational institutions, employers and other economic development partners.

The goal, according to the council’s latest annual report, is to meet industries’ needs “today and tomorrow.” In fiscal year 2018, the council administered more than $2.3 million in grants for industries and employers to hold workforce skill trainings across the state.

With low unemployment, Johnson says, the Boise business climate can thrive. Additionally, individuals who would normally not have the opportunity for a job, such as those with disabilities or who had been incarcerated, have a greater opportunity to find a job if they have the right training.

Local investment

Local educators are also finding ways to invest in the next generation of workers.

One example is the CS Professionals Hatchery Curriculum, a program run by Boise State University computer science department administers. It is funded by a five-year, $2 million National Science Foundation grant.

Through this program, BSU partners with local businesses to develop short courses that focus on professional skills relevant to computer science. Courses in the program can vary, from learning about more technical topics such as databases and Agile project management, to less technical but still vital topics such as ethics.

It gives an opportunity for local tech companies to shape their workforce, says Amit Jain, who chairs the BSU computer science department.

“The idea was to make the students ready to go when they graduate,” he says.

The tech workforce

The tech workforce is one of the fastest growing in the Boise area. According to Krause with the BVEP, 25% of companies that come to look at Boise are in tech.

The BSU department of computer science is literally at the center of the tech industry developing in the downtown, Jain says.

Jain tracks the proliferation of tech companies in the Boise area on Google Maps. Search for “Boise Software Ecosystem,” and you will find Jain’s customized map, which has boundaries around the downtown and also farther out, capturing companies headquartered elsewhere, such as Micron in southeast Boise and TSheets in Eagle.

Most companies on the map — at least 50 — are within the downtown boundaries, clustered near the BSU computer science department’s building. “Most of the companies I’m talking about are within three or four blocks, Jain says. “It’s like its own corridor.”

This high concentration of tech companies in the area is appealing to many of Jain’s students. He recalls former students who turned down job offers because they wouldn’t have been working in the Boise downtown.

‘Synchronicity’

Jain says tech companies tend to locate near one another because software development is a creative profession — part of the creative economy. And creative people like to “rub shoulders” with other creative people and be inspired by one another.

The growing downtown tech industry is one of the reasons why California-based technology firm Jelli chose in 2017 to open an office at 416 S. 8th St.

“In order to make our decision to move to Boise, we needed to make sure there was a community of other similar companies already established, as well as feeders like Boise State University to contribute talent,” says Jelli CEO Mike Dougherty.

Jelli was acquired by audio company iHeartMedia in 2018. Jelli’s new owners are excited about the company’s location in Boise and are interested in expanding its presence, Dougherty says. As of May, Jelli has 20 employees in Boise with plans to expand and hire software engineers.

Jelli was pleasantly surprised to find a tech workforce of people not just educated in Idaho, but those with backgrounds from larger tech hubs such as Seattle and San Francisco, Dougherty adds. The area’s low cost of living and a downtown that was walkable, with plenty of amenities, make it desirable for professionals moving away from those areas.

Jain enjoys the camaraderie of being around so many similar professionals in the downtown. He explains why creative professionals such as software engineers like to be near one another, calling it synchronicity.

“They are right next to each other because the engineers like it,” Jain says. “I go out at lunch and there’s all these people talking code and all kinds of cool stuff, from other companies. I think that synergy creates more ideas, more creativity.”

There is a “power in proximity” with the downtown workforce, Lynn Hightower says. Having so many people close together creates opportunities to collaborate, to learn from each other, to innovate and to attract other employers. It feeds economic growth.  “And really, that is the value of a city, the value of a dense environment,” Hightower says.

The BSU computer science department fills two floors of its building at 777 W. Main St. on City Center Plaza and half a floor of the US Bank building next door. Jain doesn’t rule out the idea of expanding more in the future.

Since moving to its headquarters three years ago, the department has increased its graduation rate from about 25 to 100 people per year.

Jain notes that the department’s expansion and downtown presence are attractive to companies, which visit the computer science department often to assess the readiness of the workforce: “A lot of companies come to Boise each year because they want a piece of that.”

About Lis Stewart