As IBM cuts jobs in Vermont, others hire

Burlington officials, tech execs explain a shifting employment landscape

IBM's shrinking U.S. workforce is particularly worrisome in Burlington Vt., which has long counted on the company to provide many good jobs for area residents.

A decade ago, IBM employed about 8,000 people in the region; city officials believe the IBM workforce has since declined to approximately 5,000.

City officials and business leaders say that the IBM job losses are being somewhat offset by new types of tech companies that are newly arrived to the Burlington area, or have been around a while and continue to grow. Many of these companies are focusing on providing electronic commerce and software as a service products.

One of those, Dealer.com, provides a range of marketing and Web development services to automotive dealers. The 12-year-old company now counts some 400 employees and says that it's is on track to add about 100 employees a year. Officials say there are usually some job 30 openings for various positions, including Java developers, graphic designers, IT applications managers, support technicians and network administrators.

Burlington-based Dealer.com works hard to keep its employees. It pays all the benefit costs and kicks in on 401K. The company provides its workers with a gym, tennis courts, a heavily-subsidized organic food cafe, ski passes and other things that help keep the staff healthy and happy , said Mike Lane, COO and one of the company's founders.

The local tech labor pool has its limits and the company has to recruit nationally, but convincing good workers to consider a move to Vermont isn't difficult, said Lane.

The state is "one of the most beautiful places that you can live," and the active, outdoor focused lifestyle complements the "work hard, play hard," attitude of many people in the IT industry, said Lane.

Burlington's population of 40,000 makes it Vermont's largest city and IBM, with facilities in nearby Essex Junction, population 10,000, may be the state's largest employer.

Dealer.com has hired ex-IBM employees, and among the locals in tech, "a lot of people have IBM on their resume," said Lane.

Dealer.com isn't the only are tech company that's growing, which makes the high-tech business and employment trend in Burlington particularly interesting.

For example, the area includes other businesses offering electronic commerce and marketing services that are similar to the Dealer.com model, but in different markets. Those include MyWebGrocer.com in Colchester, a provider of e-commerce and e-marketing tools to the grocery and consumer packaged goods industries, and Kea Group in Williston, which provides e-commerce services as well as physical warehousing, shipping and inventory control for businesses.

Alec Newcomb, the executive vice president of the 11-year-old MyWebGrocer, which counts some major grocers and manufacturers among its clients, has just crossed the 100 employee mark and sees itself growing to 200 employees in the near future.

The growth of these e-commerce-type services companies in Burlington area is also giving rise to a local "digital culture" fueled by growing combination of employees from these firms who get together at networking events and at local Web marketing summits -- "which you typically don't find in a community our size," said Newcomb.

The local colleges, Champlain College, the University of Vermont and Burlington College are also responding with programs and training.

Seamus Walsh, chief marketing officer at 15-year-old Kea, said one of the best things going for Vermont is the lower living and labor costs compared to the Boston and New York metropolitan areas. "We want to become the order capital of the world," said Walsh. "Don't go to India, come to Vermont."

The Kea group is also in hiring mode; it now has 30 full-time employees and five part-time workers and forecasts that it will employ 100 workers in 2010. Walsh said Kea's Vermont location has an extra benefit for Kea, namely the Port of Montreal which is easier to reach and less costly than some other nearby ports.

Newcomb acknowledged that there are some critics of the area's support for business -- the tax benefits lag behind some other areas, and the permitting process can be difficult. However, he added, "there are challenges everywhere you go."

Larry Kupferman, the director of community and economic development office in Burlington, noted that the city has a municipally operated fiber network and generates its own electricity, which allows it to offer business users comparatively low rates and plenty of bandwidth.

The new business won't be replacing the jobs that IBM has cut anytime soon, but they have given hope that this area can adapt itself to changing economy and draw people with the right skills.

"People don't move here primarily for work," said Kupferman, "They move here for lifestyle as well as work," he said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov , or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com .

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Patrick Thibodeau

Computerworld (US)

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