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High-tech help hard to find for Uber in Pittsburgh

Aaron Aupperlee
| Thursday, April 14, 2016, 5:24 p.m.

One of the chief challenges at Uber's Advanced Technology Center in the Strip District, aside from perfecting self-driving cars, is finding people to work there.

John Bares, the center's director, joked at the start of a talk Thursday before members of the Pittsburgh Technology Council that Uber chose Pittsburgh as the site of the ride-share company's hub for autonomous vehicle innovation because of “super-advanced, modern infrastructure and the weather.”

The audience paused before laughing, knowing the joke underscored the challenges the city's tech growth faces in recruiting the industry's brightest minds.

“We're struggling and fighting to find the right people,” Bares said. “If you showed me 100 of the right people, we'd hire them tomorrow.”

A burgeoning start-up scene and investments from top technology companies such as Google in Bakery Square, Facebook and virtual reality pioneer Oculus in Oakland have bestowed the Steel City with new nicknames such as Silicon Valley East, the Silicon Strip and Silicon Alley. But recruiters say the city lacks what employees are seeking.

“We are aware that the concentration of high-tech jobs is increasing here,” said Vera Krekanova, chief strategy officer at Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board. “They could grow faster if they had access to talent at that level.”

Krekanova said Pittsburgh's universities are producing top talent, but the graduates are not staying. They leave, in part, because the Bay Area and elsewhere are more attractive, but also because many tech jobs around Pittsburgh require some experience — experience only available elsewhere.

John Yocca, president of A.C. Coy, a Peters Township-based tech recruiting firm, said he has had little success persuading software engineers to move from the West Coast to Pittsburgh. The limited number of computer science graduates from programs at Carnegie Mellon University and University of Pittsburgh are heavily recruited by outside companies and enticed to leave, said Yocca, a CMU computer science grad.

Bares, who headed CMU's National Robotics Engineering Center for more than a decade before founding Carnegie Robotics and ultimately joining Uber, said the Advanced Technology Center is constantly re-locating people from West Coast tech epicenters to work in Pittsburgh. A family from Mountain View, Calif., home of Google, was in town Thursday to see the city, and the Uber staff hoped to keep them, Bares said.

Uber announced the opening of its Advanced Technology Center last year. Near CMU's robotics center in Lawrenceville, the center hired away 40 researchers and scientists from the university months later. Uber plans to locate a testing operation in the Almono development on the former LTV Steel site in Hazelwood.

Bares would not say how many employees the Advanced Technology Center plans to hire. “A lot,” he said. The company's website has 64 positions posted.

He said recruits want more bike paths, cleaner air and better public transit. They want a vibrant downtown, and they want to live in it. Uber is competing for people looking at jobs in San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, Seattle and Boulder.

“If any of you have anything to do with making Pittsburgh better for young people, keep on it and hard, because that's what we're competing against,” Bares said. “Every single person we're hiring, with almost no exception, we're picking off from somewhere.”

And every person Uber hires, Bares said, could get another job tomorrow if they wanted.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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