The Simpler Life

Smaller cities such as Sioux Falls, S.D., hold new charm for restless IT professionals who want a change from high-pressure jobs and high costs of living.

With their subzero winters, the hills of Sioux Falls, S.D., may not sound like a destination to warm the heart. But they were a welcome change for Darwin Tenhaken a year ago, when he took a job managing a new division at Training Partners Inc., an IT education facility.

Tenhaken relocated with his family from Des Moines, Iowa, to Sioux Falls, which has almost 70,000 fewer people and is about 15 degrees colder. But he isn't regretting the frigid temperatures for a second.

"I grew up with the temperatures, and sick as it may sound, it doesn't bother me," says Tenhaken. "[And] I like the area, the friendliness of everybody."

No one could mistake South Dakota's largest city for Silicon Valley, and it's certainly no refuge for sun worshipers. But a growing number of IT professionals like Tenhaken are moving to areas like Sioux Falls.

For some, small-town living and a focus on family simply weigh more heavily than concerns about a stymied career. And those with at least a few years of work experience can find technically interesting jobs, along with a low cost of living.

Tenhaken says he found that he wasn't sacrificing anything in his move. "For day-to-day living and what you want to do, it's got all the same feature sets [as larger cities]," he says.

Good for Companies

Companies are also finding what they need in the region. Steve Kurtenbach, CEO of Bay Technology Group Inc., originally started his company in San Francisco, after working at Andersen Consulting for a dozen years. But he was born and raised in South Dakota and, after a return visit, moved his new company to the state in the fall of 1998.

Although Sioux Falls is relatively small—it has a population of approximately 128,000—Kurtenbach knew technical people who were as good or better than those he had met in larger cities around the world. And the Web has allowed his firm access to business from companies in larger metropolitan areas.

"By the nature of e-business, it doesn't matter where you're located," says Kurtenbach.

For those job-seekers not yet enticed by e-business, two major industries in the region are health care and retail, as Sioux Falls is a regional center for people from southwest Minnesota, northwest Iowa and the rest of South Dakota.

Financial firms, such as Citibank, and their back-office call centers are also major employers. San Diego-based Gateway Inc. and Hutchinson, Minn.-based Hutchinson Technology Inc., a manufacturer of hard-drive components, are big employers as well, though both have seen business slowdowns. Yet unemployment in the area is still less than 2%, with positions and potential employees almost completely matched.

There's a good supply of network administrators and technical-support personnel, according to Thane Paulsen, general manager of LLC, an Internet content company. "There's a smaller talent pool in Sioux Falls for [developers]," says Paulsen, though he's been able to hire the people he's needed.

Lower Cost of Living

Although the talent may be of the same quality, potential salaries are lower than in many parts of the country. For example, a client/server programmer with at least four years' experience could expect an average national salary range of about $70,000 to $84,000 annually, according to Wellesley, Mass.-based Inc. The same position in Sioux Falls would pay from $63,000 to $76,000.

In a major market such as Chicago, the low end of pay would start where the top Sioux Falls salaries leave off. Salaries for senior network administrators tell a similar story, with two to four years' experience bringing from $52,000 to $65,000 in Sioux Falls but $57,000 to $72,000 nationally.

Yet the drop in salary may not take a major toll on lifestyle. Sioux Falls' cost-of-living index is approximately 15% below the national average, partly because there's no income tax. According to a comparative salary calculator from Westlake Village, Calif.-based Inc., an income of just less than $50,000 in Sioux Falls would be equivalent to $100,000 in Chicago.

An average three-bedroom house costs slightly more than $110,000, and rent for a two-bedroom apartment runs about $600 per month, though housing availability is tight.

"We saw a house in the morning, looked at two other houses, then came back at 2 p.m. and it had sold," reports Brian Bjork, who relocated from Omaha and now works at Sencore Inc., a manufacturer of test equipment in Sioux Falls.

But Bjork found a house, and his family now enjoys local sports teams, arts-and-crafts shows, a per-capita crime rate that's less than half the national average, a nine-mile commute that takes 10 to 15 minutes during rush hour, and many parks and pools.

He describes Sioux Falls as having a "small-town atmosphere with big-city amenities."

In short, Bjork and his wife found the area to be a good place to raise a family. Outside of the tight housing market, the biggest drawback is that the temperatures are lower than what he was used to.

"Snow doesn't bother me; it's the cold and windchill," says Bjork.

Sherman is a freelance writer in Marshfield, Mass.

Sioux Falls at a Glance

Top IT jobs: Programming and network administration

Top IT skills: C++, Java, Oracle, proprietary packages for call centers, Cobra (a language used in the insurance business)

Major industries: Health care, retail, banking, manufacturing

Salaries: C++ programmer: $45,000, with two years' experience; Oracle database administrator: $60,000, with five years' experience

Corporate culture is stable and very "Midwestern." Business casual is the dress mode, but don't expect "a lot of the blue-hair, ponytail types working in IT," says Jeffrey Wilcox, a sales consultant at Key Executive Placement in Sioux Falls.

The recruiter's view: Wilcox sees steady growth for the IT market in Sioux Falls for the near future. Some technology manufacturers, like Hutchinson Technology Inc. in Hutchinson, Minn., have laid off production workers, but IT has remained stable. Programmers are in high demand, since potential employees from other areas are often put off by the severe winter weather. For an edge in the market, have experience with programming call centers, says Wilcox. Also, mainframe experience goes a long way in this area.

The workforce is stable. Wilcox recently interviewed three programmers, each of whom had had only two different jobs in a 15-year span.

Companies don't try to poach one another's employees, so if you want to change positions, be active and don't wait for a recruiter's call.

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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