High-tech jobs invade the industrial Midwest

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A Silicon Valley office isn't necessarily a key ingredient of a successful dot-com, and you don't have to move to California for the best jobs. There is a rapidly growing high-tech community in the nation's breadbasket, with successful Internet companies in places like Chicago, Detroit, and Minneapolis. This results in a growing number of solid Internet jobs located far from high-tech centers like San Jose and Boston.

Forrester Research (www.forrester.com) speculates in a report, "eMarketplaces Boost B2B Trade," that the Internet boom will move to the industrial Midwest. Although dot-coms won't replace the cornfields anytime soon, Forrester reports that "in 2004, 17 percent of all business trade will be transacted on the Net, and eMarketplaces will be firmly entrenched within many supply chains." In other words, industrial suppliers will conduct more and more business on the Net.

Buyers and sellers of grain, steel, auto parts, and other Midwestern staples will rely on dynamic, Internet-based trade. "Business-to-business trade isn't growing up in high-tech centers like Silicon Valley -- it's developing in industrial hubs like Cleveland and Detroit," says the Forrester report. "As B2B trade expands, there will be a flight of talent and venture capital money to support these efforts, leaving the coasts feeling a bit of a frost."

Midwestern cities know a good thing when they see it, and go to great lengths to attract and accommodate Internet companies. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley has been quite active and very successful in promoting Chicago as a potential home for high-tech companies and the high-paying jobs they bring. "Chicago is fast developing a reputation as a great place for Internet companies," said Daley. Besides being the geographic center of the United States, Daley said, "We are the telecommunications center of North America, and the world's only interconnection point of advanced Internet systems."

Perhaps more importantly, added Daley, "We have a city government that's willing to smooth the way for start-up companies." That was important to Alan Warms, CEO and founder of Chicago-based Participate.com, a provider of online community management services. "As an entrepreneur, you are one call away from the mayor," said Warms. Chicago's city government, like that of many Midwestern municipalities, is very supportive of its growing high-tech community. "I think that's a huge leg up for any entrepreneur."

Warms said there's an advantage to working in Chicago, and Midwestern high-tech workers don't suffer from job-hopping syndrome like workers on the coasts. "I think there's something about people who grew up in the Midwest," said Warms. "They understand what it means to be part of a team."

Call it traditional values if you will, but speaking as a former Hoosier, Midwesterners tend to think more like Ward and June Cleaver than do their California counterparts -- and the dot-com economy needs a little bit of Ward and June every now and then to stay realistic. In the Internet frenzy of just a few years ago, "people were going for the quick buck instead of thinking long-term," said Warms. "The attitude I've always had was, I want to found a company that's going to be around for 100 years."

Bhushan Kulkarni, CEO of EdShop.com (Ann Arbor, Mich.), a provider of online IT education, says that if a company has an entrepreneurial spirit, location is not as important. As an e-learning company, EdShop.com has been very successful in servicing the IT training needs of the Midwest's heavy industrial companies, as well as companies on both coasts. Kulkarni's experience in Ann Arbor has been the same as Warms's in Chicago -- employee retention is high.

"There is a challenge in finding good talent, everybody faces that in the IT industry," said Kulkarni. "But there is a wide range of people that we are able to attract to the company, and we are able to retain them." While Silicon Valley's turnover rates are outrageous, EdShop.com and parent company GDI Infotech keep their employees. "We maintained close to 100 percent employee retention last year while tripling our size," Kulkarni said. While some of this can be attributed to the fact that EdShop.com is a great place to work, "a lot of people like to stick around in this area," Kulkarni noted.

Not everyone wants to leave the heartland for the coast -- and with companies like EdShop.com and Participate.com bringing the Internet economy home, they don't have to.

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