San Antonio’s startup ecosystem has grown in recent years, thanks in part to an injection of entrepreneurial activity in the Houston Street tech district, but the city needs to attract and develop more talent to rise above other economies that are growing even faster, panelists said Friday at the annual San Antonio Startup Weekend.
For budding entrepreneurs and tech talent, San Antonio hasn’t always been the natural choice, said Lew Moorman, Scaleworks founder and general partner. It takes a lot of effort to grow the city’s tech landscape. Sometimes positive developments for the tech scene can obscure the challenges still facing San Antonio, he said.
“I worry about declaring victories too early,” Moorman said. “There’s too much happy talk in this city about how great things are going. Look, our median income numbers suck. We’re not creating enough jobs here.”
San Antonio was ranked 47th among the largest tech talent markets in the U.S., according to CBRE’s annual tech talent report. Although the city has made gains in the numbers of graduates with degrees in computing fields and other technical areas, it hasn’t been enough to catch up with fellow secondary markets, such as Cincinnati, Nashville, and Jacksonville, all of which have eclipsed San Antonio in the annual scorecard.
In the past few years San Antonio has fallen in CBRE’s rankings from 40th, to 45th and now 47th. That the city hasn’t kept up with other nontraditional tech markets in growing its talent pool is a worrying sign for many of the leaders in the city’s tech industry.
Among smaller tech markets, San Antonio is ranked behind cities such as Tampa, Columbus, and Salt Lake City.
Its 3 percent concentration of the tech talent pool is one of the lowest of these secondary markets. By comparison, Austin’s 72,000 tech workers make up about 7 percent of the total workforce.
Austin didn’t get to where it is today with minimal effort to grow its tech industry, said David Robinson Jr., an analyst at Blueprint Local, a new investment firm focused on so-called opportunity zones in San Antonio and Austin. These zones have been targeted through policy for economic stimulation through redevelopment and workforce development.
The blueprint that Austin followed took place over the course of decades, from the city’s first microprocessor plants to the founding of Dell Technologies and beyond, Robinson said.
“It didn’t just happen in any of those cities,” he said.
For San Antonio to begin to change its fortunes when it comes to growing its talent pool, it will have to become more effective at telling its stories both to San Antonians and outsiders, said Jenna Saucedo-Herrera, president and CEO of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation.
“I don’t want to market [San Antonio] as a place to visit,” Moorman said, alluding to San Antonio’s omnipresent hospitality sector and downtown attractions such as the Alamo and River Walk. “I want to market it as a place to live. We have not been doing a great job of that.”
David Heard, who heads the local tech trade association Tech Bloc, has said city leaders have encountered difficulties in the past selling young technical talent, such as software engineers, on San Antonio because of the city’s suburban sprawl; its perception as more of a family-oriented town than a hip, millennial city; and the lack of awareness about the economic opportunities the city could afford them.
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To build the local talent pool, the city will have to continue to densify its urban landscape and also provide more lifestyle amenities, Moorman said. The Pearl District is often cited as an attraction that appeals to the type of tech worker the city is hoping to draw.
San Antonio’s tech scene has celebrated some recent wins – including the $200 million effort to redevelop and expand The University of Texas at San Antonio’s downtown campus, which includes plans for a cyber-focused National Security Collaboration Center and a new School of Data Science that will graduate computing field degree holders – but victories will have to become far more frequent to sustain the tech industry’s appetite for growth.
“We’re not there yet,” Moorman said. “It takes a lot of effort – things like Tech Bloc, a very aggressive [economic development foundation], and mission-driven entrepreneurs. It takes a lot of things to get this all moving.”