Angelina Courtney and Ezell Jones, employees at Atomic Data’s downtown data center, could be the face of a diversifying tech workforce.

“If we want a more diverse workforce and culture, we need to get fed a diverse river of new employees,” said Atomic CEO Jim Wolford, 48, co-founder and majority owner of Atomic Data. “We want people to see themselves here.”

Atomic Data, a 15-year-old integrated IT solutions company based in the Warehouse District, manages data centers around the country. It has grown to about 125 employees and expects revenue of about $26 million this year and has been recognized recently as a fast-growing company that also has grown the number of female and minority employees to more than 25 percent of its workforce.

“I interviewed at three companies, and I liked the culture here at Atomic,” said Courtney, 27, who was hired this year, and works as a network administration analyst. “I don’t feel I’m here to fill a quota. I feel like people are happy I’m here.”

Jones, 29, who, like Courtney, always liked technology but had little formal training, is a three-year veteran of Atomic Data.

Before he got the job as an entry-level analyst, Jones was managing computer labs for a youth nonprofit that leases space in several Minneapolis parks.

“I’m now operating on a higher level than ever, dealing with a wide variety of clients and different operating systems and internet service providers,” Jones said. “We monitor client servers, networks and applications to know things are up and operating correctly.”

Junior analysts at Atomic Data typically start as trainees making $15.50 an hour, plus benefits, and can rise within a few years to $25 an hour, working as system monitors and IT-support staff for Atomic clients.

Jones and Courtney, who is now completing a two-year degree in network administration, graduated from the intense, eight-week IT-Ready program that has trained about 300 out-of-work or underemployed Twin Cities residents since 2012. The program is funded by the Creating IT Futures Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the computer industry that is trying to help diversify and solve a job shortage in the IT industry.

“Atomic Data has hired nine people from our program, and they engage with us,” said Sue Wallace, a veteran technologist and nonprofit executive who manages the local IT-Ready training effort that trains mostly women, minorities and veterans.

“Most of the people who come to our classes are not in degree programs or don’t have formal IT training,” she said. “And there are about 1 million positions open annually. Graduates start with $15-an-hour jobs and we see people within two or three years moving toward $70,000 a year.”

‘20 job openings’

Atomic Data recently was named one of America’s 100 fastest-growing inner-city businesses by Fortune magazine and the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City.

“We have 20 job openings, and after we fill them we’ll have another five,” Wolford said. “Clients want us not just to monitor their systems, but to log in and fix them. We’ve become the IT department for some of them.”

Wolford said he wants creative, inquisitive trainees who can learn and work at his 24/7 operation. He signed on with IT-Ready because the program teaches the basics, and students are allowed only one absence. IT-Ready also teaches communications and listening skills.

Wolford, who is white, said he hired his first black computer scientist, John Murdoch, when he was laid off during the 2007-08 recession by a larger firm. He added that diversity is good, not just for the opportunity it provides, but because people with different cultural, educational and income experience create a more dynamic, creative environment.

“I can’t solve all the problems with white guys who went to the same schools together,” he said. “I want a diversity of experience. In our business, there’s never just one answer.

“The most expensive answer is replace what you’ve got with new hardware and software,” he said. “The harder answer is knowing clients … and finding the best solution. [When] we have more women and minority employees, we’re a better company.”

Wolford added that having a Warehouse District headquarters and a downtown data center help attract diverse workers from all over the Twin Cities because they are central locations that also offer cultural and entertainment amenities.

Growing diversity in tech

Meanwhile, minority employment in IT fields, albeit still small, is growing faster than the market, according to statistics from the Minnesota Department of Trade and Economic Development and the U.S. Census Bureau.

The job market for professional, scientific and technical services in the seven-county metro area has grown 17 percent to 120,935 positions between 2000 and 2015.

Meanwhile, the number of Latinos holding such jobs over the same period doubled to 3,178. Blacks grew 70 percent to 3,624 and Asians 50 percent to 6,779.

As thousands of baby boomers retire, the trends should continue.

“This sector is growing faster [in recent years] than the overall labor market and … the fastest growth is among minority workers,” said Timothy O’Neill, Twin Cities region labor analyst for the state. “It’s encouraging. … As of the second quarter of 2016 in the metro area, there were over 2,300 job vacancies in that sector alone.”

 

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.