New Amazon Headquarters — why education mattered so much

7 Lumina Talent Hubs in Amazon HQ2 Final Round

By Dakota Pawlicki and Jesse O’Connell

Main Campus Headquarters of Amazon.com / iStock

Last fall we made the suggestion that Amazon give strong consideration to the communities designated by Lumina Foundation as Talent Hubs as the company vetted the 238 bids to host its second North American headquarters. Yesterday, the Seattle-based e-retailer and cloud computing behemoth tabbed 20 cities as finalists, including seven Talent Hubs.

The inclusion of Austin, Boston, Denver, Los Angeles, Nashville, New York, and Philadelphia on Amazon’s short list is further proof of the importance of building partnerships between employers, educators, and community organizations to ensure a prepared workforce that is capable of meeting market demands.

We come here today not to pat ourselves on the back (OK, not just to pat ourselves on the back) but to take a closer look at why Talent Hubs accounted for more than a third of the cities on Amazon’s shortlist for their so-called HQ2. Each city checks the required boxes: large in size, airport access, manageable commutes (though anyone who has sat in New York or Los Angeles rush hour traffic may be squinting to see this one), and an inclusive culture. But many other cities that didn’t make the cut check these boxes as well.

It is likely then that the workforce advantages presented by these seven Talent Hubs gave them a leg up on fellow applicants. The economic story here in the early going of this young century has been one of continuous technological disruption transforming the world of work. Communities that have embraced the necessity of education beyond high school and taken steps to design easy to access and easy to navigate systems are communities that have thrived. Indeed, it was the development of dynamic partnerships to build and sustain these types of next-generation education systems that led these cities to be designated as Talent Hubs.

The Nashville Chamber of Commerce is leading a broad-based partnership to prepare the over 250,000 adults with no recognized learning after high school in Davidson County, Tenn. Using the results from a city-wide assessment of workforce needs, the Chamber, in partnership with Nashville State Community College and Tennessee College of Applied Technology-Nashville, are creating pathways to careers in four new key growth sectors. Nashville has already created strong pathways in the hospitality, retail, construction, healthcare, and IT sectors, allowing adults to earn certifications that lead to better jobs and more education.

Creating a pathway alone does not address the many barriers adults face when trying to upskill for the future economy. Nashville takes the extra steps of including additional partners such as the office of Mayor Megan Barry, Middle Tennessee Reconnect, the Urban League, and even Goodwill Industries to streamline advising, leverage distributed resources, and ultimately create a stronger, cooperative postsecondary ecosystem that puts the needs of Nashville citizens first.

In Texas, Austin has a broad-based partnership serving the needs of thousands of low-income and unemployed adults. Primarily focused on the 70,000 adults who have some college experience but never earned a degree, the Austin Chamber of Commerce partnered with Austin Community College and Western Governors University to improve case management, adult advising, and financial aid. As in Nashville, each partner has a critical role to play, including the Austin Workforce Board reaching out and helping adults re-enroll, to the schools providing completion supports, to finally the Chamber to ensure these newly credentialed adults can enter the workforce with ease. Regional thinking and providing robust supports for adults through the entire education to workforce process is transforming Austin’s workforce, making it a leading contender for Amazon.

And our earlier jokes about Los Angeles traffic aside, what they have done to ensure no learner falls out of a college pathway is certainly worthy of the attention of an employer like Amazon. UNITE-LA, an organization that improves local education and workforce systems, has focused on the 477,000 adults who earned some college credit but never earned a degree.

Working with California State University-Northridge and the Los Angeles Community College District, the partnership is identifying students who transferred among the two- and four-year schools, earned enough credits to graduate with an associate degree, but never did. Los Angeles knows that these learners have already acquired the skills and knowledge needed to participate in the workforce but never received the credential that opens the door to better employment. UNITE-LA also knows it must help people stay in school who would otherwise leave for family or financial reasons. Their partnership created new systems and policies that allow first-time freshmen from California State Northridge who stopped attending school to enroll into an associate degree pathway. Instead of these students leaving college with nothing but debt, they now have a chance to earn an associate degree while making progress toward a bachelor’s without worrying if credits transfer.

We’ll watch with interest as Amazon goes about its year-long vetting process of these 20 finalists for HQ2. And while there will ultimately be but a single winner, many more communities can emerge as winners should they be inspired by this example of the returns on investing in talent development.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a small city or a booming metropolis, a multinational corporation or a family-run business on main street; we all stand steadier on the foundation of a high-quality, affordable, system of education beyond high school that recognizes all types of learning.

While it is Amazon today, we can’t know who it might be tomorrow, or next year. All that we can know is the need to be ready, to build this system together piece by piece, partnership by partnership, and in doing so unlock the promise of opportunity for all Americans.

Dakota Pawlicki is the Strategy Officer for Community Mobilization at Lumina Foundation. Experienced in creating multi-sector partnerships, Dakota focuses on improving education ecosystems to drive workforce and economic development.

Jesse O’Connell is a Deputy Director at Lumina Foundation, helping lead work to develop models of postsecondary finance and advance federal policy to increase attainment.