RALEIGH, N.C. – With an already tight labor market and North Carolina’s cleantech industry on the rise, the competition to attract top talent is as fierce as ever.

That was on full view when around 16 companies turned out for the Cleantech Connect Career Fair on Wednesday – with tech giants like Cisco and ABB setting up stands alongside local startups like Smashing Boxes at the McKimmon Conference and Training Center in Raleigh.

More than 500 people registered to attend, hoping to land one of the 250 jobs posted – from entry-level to senior roles in engineering, data analytics, development, marketing and more.

“There is a wide breadth of jobs, and quite a few careers paths,” said Susan Sanford, executive director of Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster (RTCC), which organized the fair.

Lines of potential employees at the Cleantech Connect Career Fair on Wednesday

Clean technology, or cleantech, is a general term used to describe products, processes or services that reduce waste and require as few non-renewable resources as possible. Its scope is broad, covering everything from renewable energy (wind power, biomass, hydropower) to green transportation, electric cars and the rest.

“Cleantech is growing by 24 percent over the next five years [in North Carolina],” said Sanford.

“That’s almost four times the national average. So if you want to make a difference and improve the world and make communities cleaner, this is an industry that you want to work in.”

Job-seekers market

By all accounts, this is a great time to be looking for work.

According to NC Tech’s most recent monthly jobs snapshot, there were 24,148 open tech positions in December 2018 – a slight decrease from the month prior, but still a 33 percent jump from 2017.

Software developers remain in high demand, with openings for this type of role growing a whopping 64 percent in 2018 compared to the previous year.

“It’s certainly a job seekers market right now,” said Kirsten Fritz, a corporate recruiter at Sensus, who was among the first to arrive to set up a stall.

About two years ago, global cleantech firm, Xylem, acquired Sensus, a Raleigh-based Internet of Things (IoT) firm offering smart solutions to cities.

Since then, the company has been growing exponentially.

At present, it has 100 positions open locally (the most of any company at the fair), and around 400 nationally.

Fritz admits filling those roles is no small task given the tight market.

“We just have to do our best to sell the company, and what we’re doing,” she said. “The culture of the Census brand is a selling point. There’s a lot of flexibility with work schedules. That’s always a plus.”

Internships on the rise

Another emerging trend is the rise of formal internships and training programs for newly minted college graduates.

Suzy Walden, external talent programs leader at ABB, one of the world’s leading suppliers of industrial robots, robot automation and related services, said the firm had just expanded its career development program.

At the fair, she was specifically looking to hire more than 50 recent college graduates for the spring. That’s compared to 20 recruits hired last year.

“We’re not unique in that we’ve got an aging workforce. It’s actually a problem that a lot of companies are facing,” Walden said.

“The average age of our employees is almost 50 years old. So we have a lot of talent and knowledge that’s walking out the door every day with retirements. We want to be able to take advantage of some of the new, fresh and hungry talent that is coming out of schools to be able to fill in some of those gaps.”

Kiley Dove, university recruiting and relations manager at Cisco, was also targeting young talent. Cisco had 30 openings, most of them internships.

To give them the edge with millennials, she said, it’s important to play up a company’s community outreach programs.

To that end, Cicso offers its employees 40 hours of paid time off to carry out volunteer work, among other things.

“Students that come out now already want to feel like they already have a sense of purpose at their company, and that they’re giving back,” she said.

“A company that focuses on that, and takes the time to give back and be a part of their community, are the ones that attract that new, top talent.”

Optimism in the air

Balaji Ranganathan, 43, a marketing partner with retail firm in the Triangle, was among those in attendance.

He was specifically looking for a role with an IoT-based company.

“The market is going to be all about connected devices for the next 20 to 30 years, at least until my retirement,” he said. “I’m looking towards using that sort of technology where it will be a sustained job.”

He seemed to be confident that he would find something. “It’s definitely an open market right now. Things are moving faster than it used to be.”

Caroline Piephoff, 21, drove three hours from Boone to be there. She is getting ready to graduate with a degree in physics from Appalachian State University in the spring, and is looking for a role in renewable energy.

Caroline Piephoff.

“I’m feeling pretty optimistic because there seem to be a lot of opportunities and solar is a growing field, so there should be something for me,” she said.

After applying to several positions online with no response, she decided to give the fair a try.

“It’s been going okay. I haven’t heard any positive feedback yet, so I’m trying the face-to-face thing.”