The Real Winner from Amazon HQ2

This should be encouraging for communities across the nation. It means that even if you lack certain kinds of infrastructure or cultural amenities, you can still cultivate a thriving workforce that is attractive to employers of all stripes.

This office building in Arlington, Va., is one of the future sites of Amazon HQ2. (iStock / josephgruber)

By Jesse O’Connell Dakota Pawlicki

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. And you, Long Island City. And you too, Nashville. Sure, he arrived in November and looked more like a billionaire tech and retail impresario than Kris Kringle — but for many residents of these three communities, it certainly felt like Christmas had arrived early.

Amazon’s selection of these three communities at the end of its year-long headquarters expansion sweepstakes (first HQ2 and then the HQ Expanded Universe) was an economic development win for the ages for the state and local leaders who had vigorously pursued this opportunity. Given only a high-level set of guidelines, it was up to each contender to put together a persuasive package of incentives best suited to landing the promise of up to 50,000 jobs. We had previously suggested that cities and regions emphasize creating environments that attract, retain, and cultivate talent, particularly among today’s students, as part of their bid to attract Amazon.

And in the end, it really did come down to talent.

This is not to completely dismiss the importance and impact of other factors like airport proximity, urban amenities, and tax relief that certainly factored into these decisions. But the need for talent loomed large over the selection and clearly influenced the final choices.

First was the announcement that the HQ2 bid would be split between two locations, with a lack of talent in a single location specifically cited as the driving force behind this decision. This only affirms what we already know about the need to develop high-quality talent in many communities throughout the country. Even without the lure of one the world’s largest companies, there are many communities already working hard to connect education, business, philanthropy, government, and nonprofit services with the single goal of cultivating local talent. The best of these places have been designated Talent Hubs for their efforts to create inclusive economic growth.

Talent showed up again in the winning Virginia bid, where a massive investment in higher education was viewed as the thing that put them over the top. Part of this investment includes Virginia Tech bringing a brand-new Innovation Campus to Alexandria, VA, just a couple miles down the road from the Amazon site in Crystal City. And while this expansion of STEM education opportunities will certainly benefit Amazon, it will also benefit the surrounding communities and the state, with new opportunities for learning pathways that start in early education and lead all the way through to the workforce.

Alexandria is not alone in making Virginia a talent-rich state. Richmond, too, is creating stronger connections among Virginia Commonwealth University, John Tyler Community College, and J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College to increase education attainment. Bridging Richmond, a local cradle-to-career partnership, has created a safety net that allows students who earned credit at multiple institutions to “reverse transfer” and earn a degree by blending those credits. In a single year, nearly 400 students earned associate degrees based on credits they already earned. For Richmond, that means 400 additional residents who already had the workforce skills they needed can now get jobs previously out of reach because they didn’t have the right credentials.

This focus on talent should be encouraging for communities across the nation. It means that even if you lack certain kinds of infrastructure or cultural amenities, you can still cultivate a thriving workforce that is attractive to employers of all stripes. Columbus, Ind., a community just shy of 50,000 people, does this best. They have been home to the headquarters of Fortune 500 companies like Cummins and Meritor despite not being in an urban center. Columbus is a place where the community comes together, led by the Community Education Coalition, to attract, retain, and cultivate talent. Columbus knows what their urban neighbor to the north knows: that they have the talent they need for a prosperous future with companies that are committed to the community and its people.

Because after Amazon, the next big opportunity might be Discover Financial, and after that CVS. The American economy in the year 2018 and beyond runs on talent, and while talent lives in Northern Virginia, and New York and Nashville, talent lives also in Tulsa, and Shasta County, and Corpus Christi. Talent lives everywhere.

Talent lives here.



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