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Amazon HQ2: Potential Impact on Local Education

Rendering of proposed HQ2 in Chicago

At this point, everyone has heard Amazon is planning a $5 billion HQ2 and over 200 cities and regions submitted proposals to try and lure Amazon. Proposals range in scope and complexity and include massive tax incentives, renderings of future buildings, videos advocating for various cities and visions of how Amazon could eventually employ 50k high-tech workers in the new HQ.

Truth be told, Amazon most likely had their options narrowed to just a handful of suitable locations, long before the sweepstakes were announced. The richest man in the world (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos) is unlikely to bet the future of his five hundred billion dollar company on a proposal compiled by city officials in little more than a month. The sweepstakes are most likely just an effort (and a smart one at that) by Amazon to pull the best benefits they can out of their chosen location. In their request for proposals, Amazon discretely described their perfect city as one that simply does not exist. No city in North America offers all the things Amazon has asked for but in my estimation one requirement is by far the most important.

Amazon will only be successful if they can continue to hire and retain technical talent and 50k technical employees is nothing minor. The realistic options of cities that could support a technical workforce of that magnitude, is somewhat limited: LA, the Bay Area (San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland), Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, NYC, DC, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and Toronto. Seattle is an Amazon dominated jobs market (a.k.a. a company town) and assuming Bezos wants to dominate a market in similar fashion for success at HQ2, LA, the Bay Area, NYC, Dallas, Houston and DC would be unlikely selections. That leaves Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Atlanta and Toronto as most likely candidates.

If we focus in on those cities, I would like to consider one aspect that has not been talked about much with regard to Amazon’s decision. Naturally, everyone is talking about tax incentives and beautiful renderings of everything from skyscrapers to expansive campus style HQ2 buildings. Nevertheless, I have not heard much consideration being given to what the future workforce in these locations will be like. All of these cities can currently support Amazon, but Bezos did not become the richest man in the world by thinking about now. He is going to be considering the future and the long term sustainability of success even more than the current landscape. In other words, the workforce that will make Amazon successful and sustainable in the future is in elementary school right now. So what do these cities offer in the way of K-12 education, especially in STEM and more specifically Computer Science?

All of these cities have some options generally available as electives to students. However, with elective Computer Science courses, we have seen that minorities are substantially underrepresented. Without going into the politics of ‘why’ it seems that minorities have less access and less opportunity to succeed in elective based Computer Science courses. With Amazon’s message of diversity and inclusion, I foresee heavy weighting being given to a city that has found a way to rectify that challenge. Chicago, has taken perhaps the largest step to mitigate that issue by requiring Computer Science credits in order to graduate from high school. There are still a lot of challenges with implementing these requirements, including providing teachers the proper training, professional development and resources. Nevertheless, it is a great first step toward a 21st century workforce.

Naturally, nobody can truly predict what sort of impact this decision with have on the future workforce in Chicago, but I do not really see any negatives at this point. CPS has historically been one of the largest, most diverse school districts in the nation but also one of the most challenged. Requiring CS credits to graduate high school should mean teachers get more support in developing content and lessons from the district and potentially from outside the district as well. It also means students will be guaranteed to be exposed to coding and basic computer engineering which will help them understand if it is a career field of interest. Just having the opportunity to learn and the vision to see how many meaningful CS career paths exist will ultimately lead more students down that path.

A strong flow of young students learning CS and understanding how to code will be vital to the long term sustainment to Amazon. In fact, I believe Amazon will try to exert an enormous presence on local education, wherever they end up. I predict large contributions to local talent development and K-12 STEM programs as well as a sizable community outreach with local universities. If you consider the cost of this sort of involvement Chicago makes even more sense. Chicago has done the hardest part...taken the highest step. The city has already enforced new requirements and poised their students for success in CS related fields. In my mind, this gives them the spot of ‘favorite’ in the Amazon sweepstakes.

When you look at the opportunity for Amazon to make an impact on local education and workforce training, you can start to understand why so many cities took a shot at luring the HQ2. Above all else, the earmark of a successful city is quality education and a talented workforce. Human capital is every city’s most important asset and Amazon is poised to significantly contribute to the rise of human capital in it’s next home. Any city that enables this behavior will be at the top of consideration for Amazon. If the right balance is struck, a long, healthy relationship between Amazon and the chosen city would highlight so many opportunities to improve local STEM education and build the next generation workforce. Only time will tell if those opportunities come to fruition and if those investments (by both the city and Amazon) see large returns, but the future does look very promising!

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