Difficult market in Chicago for digital jobs, but up-and-comers show promise

By Tim Shaunnessey

Chicago-based technology companies sometimes suffer because the city is not central to digital development, leading to few employment opportunities, according to Elizabeth Bleser, vice president of marketing at the Chicago Interactive Marketing Association, the only professional organization in Chicago for those in the interactive fields.

Bleser said she believes this lack of opportunity diminishes people’s ability to develop pertinent skills early in their careers, forcing companies to look for qualified workers elsewhere.

Despite these struggles, she said the new generation heading into Chicago’s technology workforce will be well-positioned for the digital job market if they showcase their intrinsic understanding of technology.

“Where these kids are starting is worlds ahead of where I started,” Bleser said. “These are people who have grown up with social profiles [and] an understanding of how to digitally manage your friends, your connections [and] your brand. It’s all of these things that these graduates do innately because this is what they were brought

up on.”

Even with those digital skills, basic business and communication abilities are still crucial, according to Dale Legaspi, public relations manager of Break Media, a California-based publishing, production and branding company.

“Because of the relative newness of digital media, it’s inherently entrepreneurial,” Legaspi said. “Certainly, you learn fundamental skills in college, and you want to keep those in mind. But you also have to recognize that you never know it all, and throughout the course of your career you’re constantly going to be learning new things. The fast pace of the digital field will teach you that lesson quickly.”

Bleser, who has a degree in journalism, said while she didn’t end up writing for a newspaper or magazine, she was able to apply the communication, writing and research skills she learned in school to her marketing work.

“When I took my first job in digital marketing right out of college, I didn’t have a marketing degree,” she said. “I learned pretty much everything I know now by surrounding myself with really smart people.”

James Cone, digital media consultant at WSI Marketing, said in some regards conventional education is too slow to adequately prepare students for the rapidly changing digital market.

“By the time you print [a textbook], Google has changed their algorithm 50 times,” Cone said. “It’s day-to-day. They’re constantly changing.”

Bleser agreed, and said she was astounded that her courses in business school barely covered digital marketing.

“It’s amazing. In Marketing 101, they spent one night on digital marketing,” she said. “[Digital marketing] is driving so much of how we spend our time and what we talk about, and yet they spent one night in my MBA program on it.”

Bleser said CIMA offers programs and events to promote digital literacy and professional networking. Much of the education focuses on learning the language of the digital realm and concepts that may not be instilled in the classroom.

“We’ve evolved as the industry has dictated,” Bleser said. “As new technologies and platforms are popping up, [we’re figuring out] how can we stay ahead of the curve and make sure that we’re all educated and talking about how these new opportunities drive or hinder our business.”