Talking tech and Wilmington’s employment ‘gap’

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WILMINGTON — The tech business continues to grow in Wilmington, filling a conspicuous gap in the area’s employment opportunities.

The industry burst onto the scene two years ago, when CastleBranch opened TekMountain, its innovative office space for technology start-ups. Still, many in Wilmington are uncertain of what tech companies actually do, or what role they play in the local economy.

“Outside of the industry, people don’t always get what we do,” said John Cornelius, owner of Wide Open Technologies.

Cornelius, who moved his business from Charlotte to Wilmington five years ago, said the tech industry is a crucial partner for small businesses.

“A lot of places are doing their inventory with spreadsheets – it’s a lot of manual labor – and that’s all fine, but then they take off, doing a million or more in sales, and then they’re really in over their heads. So that’s when we can help them,” Cornelius said.

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John Cornelius, owner of Wide Open Technologies. “Of course you got me with my no-shave November mustache.”

Cornelius described how small, local businesses can sometimes implode when they achieve a certain level of success. Managing ever-growing inventories, staff and customer bases can overload owners and their outdated – or nonexistent – software.

“We help start-ups make sure they have the right tools to handle success from the beginning, but a lot of the time it’s helping a company turn that corner,” he said. “We can help them migrate to new systems, or create new custom ones.”

These “custom systems” allow, for example, a restaurant owner to keep track of food and alcohol inventory from a smartphone, or a clothing store to keep track of its shipments and communicate with warehouses.

They also help companies keep track of their customers and reach out to new ones. If you have ever received a promotional offer in the mail on your birthday, one of these systems helped it get there.

Helping small business grow into bigger business is an essential part of how cities grow – “it’s essential,” Cornelius said. The process has developed momentum, bringing more starts-ups – and more tech companies – to the area.

“In the last two years it’s really started to take off. We had four or five people working here, now we have 14,” he said. “We’re getting ready to move to a bigger space.”

Wide Open Technologies has also opened an office in Asheville. The industry’s quick growth has increased competition for tech jobs.

“It can be a little bit difficult to find good people,” Cornelius said. “UNCW has a good program, so people are graduating out of that and getting into tech jobs here. There’s definitely been an influx of tech staff to the area. Only about half of our staff is from here. But there’s also more companies, so there’s competition for the talent.”

Cornelius said this was an important missing piece of Wilmington’s economy, between hourly-wage jobs and high-salaried positions.

“This town has the service industry, it’s pretty saturated at that level. And there is the hospital. But between a certain level, doctors, lawyers, real estate, and the service industry, there’s a gap,” he said. “It’s crazy. In Charlotte, there are $80,000 a year jobs. And not so much here.”

Though Wide Open Technology can – and does – work with companies all over the world, Cornelius says, “we like local businesses.”

Wide Open Technologies works with Performance Culture, which offers workplace efficiency analysis, and Mid-Atlantic Safety, which does workplace safety training for construction, hospital, and industrial sites. They’ve also partnered with 101 Mobility, a nationwide chain with a Wilmington office, manufacturers of chairlifts, ramps and other systems for making offices and homes more accessible for those with disabilities.