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Old-school recruiting tools help Pittsburgh tech firm

LinkedIn's new emerging jobs report put machine learning skills at the top of the list. If you're a tech firm in Pittsburgh, what's a good way to poach that kind of San Francisco tech talent? A billboard.

In LinkedIn's new analysis of top in-demand jobs, machine learning engineer is high on the list. It is also one of the job skills Duolingo wants to fill. To do so, the Pittsburgh-based tech firm turned to a low-tech recruiting tool to attract job candidates: billboards.

Duolingo, a foreign language training platform that employs about 150 people, put up a help-wanted billboard in San Francisco, some 2,500 miles away from its headquarters. It had a simple, direct message designed for poaching Silicon Valley talent: "Own a home. Work in tech. Move to Pittsburgh."

Did it work?

The experiment began earlier this year. Duolingo put up two billboards with the same message, including one along U.S.-101 in San Francisco, which may be the area's busiest freeway. The billboard generated a sharp increase in inquiries to its recruiters, the firm said.

The billboard led to hires

The billboard campaign did result in a "few hires," but the firm "can't say exactly how many, because we have various candidates in various stages of the hiring pipeline right now. So, it's an ongoing story," said Michaela Kron, the firm's spokesperson. But she said Duolingo is happy with the results.

Duolingo in Pittsburgh placed help-wanted billboard in San Francisco.
Duolingo., a Pittsburgh-based tech firm, placed this billboard ad in San Francisco earlier this year.

The billboard is "just one small piece" of Duolingo's recruiting tools strategy, which includes attending career fairs at universities across the country, attending conferences and outreach, according to Kron.

Another one of its recruiting tools is the free Wi-Fi at Pittsburgh International Airport, which Duolingo sponsors. It means "every traveler who flies into or through our airport and logs online will learn about Duolingo and see our job openings," Kron said.

Tech skills are among the hardest jobs to fill, according to LinkedIn's 2018 U.S. Emerging Jobs Report. Blockchain developer tops the list of positions that are in "incredibly high demand." That was followed by machine learning engineer, application sales executive and machine learning specialist.

It's going to be hard to fill these positions, and "talent leaders and hiring managers will need to think about hiring for potential instead of explicit hard skills," said Sarah O'Brien, head of global insights at LinkedIn, in an email.

"Looking beyond recruiting, employers should look at up-skilling members of their current workforce," O'Brien said. "When the average shelf life of skills is less than five years, we'll need to shift our mindset from a one-size-candidate-fits-all mentality and look into continuous learning to help fill the skills gap in tech," she said.

Pittsburgh's three advantages

Pittsburgh has some advantages in the job market.

The city is home to Carnegie Mellon University, one of the premier AI research institutions in the world, and Duolingo's founders are connected to the school. Duolingo's CEO, Luis von Ahn, was a computer science professor there, and, together with Severin Hacker, his Ph.D. student at the time, they co-founded the company in 2011.

Duolingo has hired many CMU grads, but the company runs into problems finding people with mid- and senior-level experience -- people with more than 10 years of experience in tech firms.

"That is when we start having to look outside of Pittsburgh," Kron said.

San Francisco has a high concentration of tech workers and astronomical housing prices. Kron said a lot of Duolingo's staff that have moved to Pittsburgh for a job said they did so because of the cost of housing.

Indeed, in a recent Glassdoor report, Pittsburgh was at the top of the list for ease of finding work, affordability and overall satisfaction of employees.

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