For the last two years, Pallabi Saboo's firm has had 35 unfilled positions.
The company has been ready to move forward with the hires since the jobs, largely software engineering positions, became open — it just hasn't been able to find the talent to fill them.
The Chief Executive Officer of the McLean-based Harmonia, Inc., was one of 30 women minority business leaders who met with former governor and U.S. Senate candidate Tim Kaine on Tuesday in the Tysons area of Vienna, many of whom said talent, education and access to capital were the biggest roadblocks to their companies succcess.
"It's not sexy to be a engineer in high school," another woman said. "So how are they going to get into college [and pursue a career there]? We need to do more to encourage those types of jobs."
Kaine, who will likely face fellow former governor and Republican George Allen for the open Virginia U.S. Senate Seat, said the nation's ability to focus on talent development could make or break its success within the country and beyond it, and would be a large part of his agenda if he wins this November.
"The United States could fix all other economic factors," Kaine said, but without serious focus and growth in its talent pool, the country will continue to lag behind its international competitors in economic growth, education and other measures of success.
He outlined strategies to accomplish that goal and several others Tuesday afternoon.
The U.S. is nowhere near winning the talent race, Kaine said Tuesday.
Years ago, the country was ranked first in the world for its percentage of 20- to 30-year-olds with college or technical degrees; now it is 16th and headed even lower.
He used Virginia as an example of how building talent can turn an economy around. The state was ranked 38th in the country when he was born in 1958 and lagged in admitting minorities and women to its higher education system well into the 1970s.
But when it changed its rules and focused on building talent, things started to change, Kaine said. When he was governor, the state was ranked among the top 10 states in the country; in the midst of a recession, companies were moving here to do business because the schools provided a world-class education and produced talent, which translated to more revenue and growth.
"It wasn't until we focusd on building talent that [our economy] turned around," Kaine said.
Some of doing that on a national scale is about looking where talent already exists, Kaine said, like in the military and among veterans. Often, these men and women have talents and skills they don't know how to articulate or translate to real-life situations, creating a large unemployment population that is hugely talented, he said.
Reforming the No Child Left Behind Act can also work toward that goal, Kaine said.
"[We are so focused on] minimum competence with No Child Left behind we don't care who is getting ahead," Kaine said. "The focus is on where the floor should be instead of the ceiling."
Another part of building the country's talent base is immigration reform, Kaine said.
"People usually think of border security ... but that's not all it is," Kaine said. He said Virginia began to grow its talent when it attracted talented minds from around the world.
"We want to think about what is going to make us the best we can be," Kaine said.
Kaine said the U.S. has historically left k through 12 education to local jurisdictions and spent more time regulating higher education, but "our competitors are not outsourcing that to governors and mayors," he said.
He said more support and standards for career and technical education at all levels may be an area the federal government should invest in, along with kindergarten readiness.
Panu Demiralp has been a U.S. citizen for 15 years, but the immigrant still faces more challenges than some of her American counterparts in getting the capital she needs for her current business and those she may want to start in the future.
Demiralp, the CEO of BD2 LLC, is looking to turn a side consulting business into a larger company, which would, among other things, allow her to put money back into the community and create jobs, she told the former governor.
When asked for a cosigner, Demiralp offers plenty of international contacts, friends and families who will put their name on documents, but unlike many other business owners, has no American parent, aunt, uncle or cousin to vouch for collateral.
Many more immigrants like Demiralp would be able to innovate, start businesses and create jobs if regulations like that, and others, were changed, she said.
Kaine said he'd like to work on leveling the playing field for small businesses, including easing the federal procurement process, improving tax codes and making it easier for the government to work with small businesses and contractors alongside large ones.
"We want to have an economy that allows small bsuinesses to grow," Kaine said. "That's a measure of a strong economy."
As governor, Kaine helped create the Virginia Small Business Financing Authority. That, among other initiatives, helped create more opportunities for small-, women and minority business leaders, he said, but "we need to do a lot better."
Other Road Blocks to the Economy
Kaine also said he wants to improve:
- Infrastructure: As governor, a large part of his administration was working on the Rail to Dulles, he said, but progress was slow. He said the country is underinvesting in infrastructure. "That's a problem," he said. "I was a voice for infrastucture as governor, I'll be a voice as senator."
- Student Burden/Debt, Access to College: "Other countries have done it, we have to find a way to do it too," he said.
- Renewable Energy: Business Leader Sylvia Park said most of the state's energy resources are put into coal, when it should be moving away from carbon and toward sustainable, innovative sources, she said. "We don't have a comprehensive energy policy and that's a problem," Kaine said,