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Cleveland execs aim to steer IT sector in 'RITE' direction

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.

Oh, the Places You'll go! -- Dr. Seuss

Armed with a degree in information technology from the University of Akron, Northeast Ohio native Petar Bojovic knew exactly what direction to steer himself after college: West.

In the early Aughts, the West was brimming with IT opportunities thanks to the can-do energy of countless young startups. Bojovic decided that his best bet was to settle in Las Vegas. "I went out there with no job and said, Let's see what happens," explains Bojovic, now 32.

Lady Luck was with him. He landed a plum job working for a startup that was researching 4G technology in its infancy. A few years later, he moved to San Diego to join another exciting young company.

"I loved startups -- the mentality and the technology behind it, and the idea that anything can be done," Bojovic says. "The problem is, the majority of them aren't successful."

It might have been a craving for stability or a dormant yearning for his hometown that led Bojovic back to Cleveland. But the deal-clincher, he says, was a conversation with an executive from BlueBridge Networks.

BlueBridge opened its doors in 2004 as a data center hosting facility in Downtown Cleveland. In a short period of time, the company built a reputation for disaster recovery and business continuity services. Recently, the company completed a $4 million reinvestment project.

"BlueBridge Networks had clients. They had no debt. They were in technology, which I didn't know existed in Cleveland. They made me an offer, and I decided to give it a try," says Bojovic.

A year and a half later, Bojovic is the proud owner of a house in Cleveland Heights and a staunch believer in the opportunities that abound in Cleveland for tech pros.

The Cleveland IT community could use more success stories like Bojovic. If only there was a way to capture the interest of young professionals before they left town for greener pastures. The result, many believe, would be thriving local IT jobs sector, putting Cleveland squarely on the tech map.

Enter the RITE (Regional Information Technology Engagement) Board, which is comprised of 12 IT executives from some of the region's biggest corporations, along with representatives from several local colleges and universities.

The corporate list includes Eaton, Sherwin Williams and the IT firms BlueBridge, e-Ventus Corp. and Hyland Software. Representatives from Cleveland State University, Baldwin-Wallace, Lorain County Community College, Stark State College and University of Akron are also on the board.

In existence for less than two years, the RITE Board has leveraged its collective expertise into strategies designed to keep IT fresh, current and appealing to students and in turn spur the local economy through IT growth. Initiatives include encouraging students to pursue careers in IT, increasing and improving IT internships, and honing the recruitment skills of local human resource professionals.

It's impossible to fathom in this tough economy that some companies are having a hard time filling positions, but that's the reality. Brain drain whisks IT whiz kids to far-away lands before they can learn about opportunities that exist in their own backyard.

BlueBridge Networks has experienced this phenomenon first-hand. Despite a strong desire to recruit local talent, the company is forced to fill some positions from outside the region.

"We hired seven people last year, and four of them were from Northeast Ohio," says Kevin Goodman, managing director of business development for BlueBridge. "We're looking to add another 10 to 15 people," in addition to 30 contracted jobs for consultants and vendors.

"Our main source for finding talent is our professional networking," Goodman explains. This networking often provides leads on former NEO residents who have moved out to Silicon Valley or other IT hotspots. That's how BlueBridge connected with Bojovic, prompting his return to Cleveland to become the company's director of operations.

Although he grew up here, Bojovic says he had no idea how much IT-related business was happening in the region. "Back when I was in school, everything you heard about was outside Cleveland. And the tech companies in Cleveland can get overshadowed by the Cleveland Clinic and some larger businesses."

The key, he says, is providing situations for college students so they can not only obtain related experience but also get a feel for the tech vibe pulsating through the region.

Of course, if young adults don't consider IT a tantalizing field in the first place, it will remain a challenge to find qualified people to fill local openings. The key here, according to Bill Blausey, Eaton CIO and RITE Board member, is dispelling myths about technology work.

"One of my tests to judge young people's opinions on IT is to ask my children (ages 16, 15 and 11), What do you think I do at work? You get these very bizarre answers," he says. "There's a lack of understanding. You have to explain all the different things you can do in IT."

There is great range within the IT field, he explains. Eaton, for example, has about 50 different IT-related jobs within the company. "Some are very technical," says Blausey. "Others never touch a keyboard."

One of the initiatives of the RITE Board involves having college students spend a day with a Chief Information Officer to see what "IT" means at a particular company. B-W is hosting a mini IT career fair, and the RITE Board has plans to host an IT day with middle- and high-school students, complete with workshops and breakout sessions.

"We're reaching out to school counselors and parents because they are the influencers on students' careers," says Jim Shanahan, director of the Entrepreneurship Innovation Institute at Lorain County Community College.

Hyland Software is a local IT company that believes in reaching out to area students who may be interested in a tech-related career. "The majority of our recruiting is here in Northeast Ohio or the greater Ohio area," says Hyland recruiter Sarah Justice. Hyland seeks "to create a sustainable IT community in Cleveland. We've been around for 20 years, and we really are able to give the community a way to look at IT and see its growth."

The RITE Board offers a win-win situation for companies like Hyland, which can share their expertise in attracting local talent and building their business while gleaning tips from other local entities.

While still is in its infancy, the RITE Board has set measurable goals. One is to try to increase by 20 percent the number of students hired from internships and co-ops. These goals will have to be measured in years, says Blausey, but he and the other board members remain highly optimistic.

"Some interesting ideas and a lot of passion have come out of the group," notes Blausey. "And I know it's broader than just those in the room. There's a lot of energy around the topic of how we can get people excited about IT again."

This story originally appeared in hiVelocity's sister publication, Fresh Water Cleveland.
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