Cities Amazon snubbed for HQ2 can attract other suitors by investing in local tech talent


Amazon just released the list of 20 cities that might become the host of their next office HQ2, and your city likely wasn’t on it. Yes, Amazon HQ2 is expected to bring 50,000 jobs with an average annual compensation of more than $ 100,000, a huge boost to any economy. But this will not be the last opportunity for cities outside of the coasts to attract a large enterprise. In fact, Amazon is only the tip of a very large iceberg. Now is the time to reflect on what your city needs to do for when the next opportunity comes calling.

As the Amazon HQ2 announcement proves, businesses are increasingly moving their activity depending on available talent — especially tech talent that is in short supply. At the same time that technology is eating traditional jobs at an increasingly alarming rate, many new high-paying technology jobs are sitting unfilled, with about 600,000 open position in the U.S.

I predict this trend to grow as access to talent data becomes increasingly easy. For instance, LinkedIn’s economic graph tool is able to, thanks to its large user base, identify not just where a specific type of talent is available, but also what an area is missing.


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As we enter the fourth industrial revolution, led by emerging technology breakthroughs such as AI, the Internet of Things (IoT), and robotics, our educational system remains mired in a pre-Internet era — training workers that would perfectly match the requirements of companies from the last Industrial Revolution. The World Economic Forum head of education, gender, and work, Saadia Zahidi, argues that “the pace at which this evolution is progressing will require everyone to adopt a new training mindset, requiring to upskill or reskill through lifelong (continuous) learning.” Being a lifelong self-learner is not a luxury but a necessity, and schools should adapt their curriculum toward developing this ability. Hint: Sitting in a chair listening to a lecture won’t do the job.

Cities can help their citizens prepare for this continuous learning mindset in a few ways. First, they need to make sure that their education system is accessible. One of the huge barriers for many Americans is the cost of education. A new trend has been growing among post-secondary education institutions that solve this issue. The Income Share Agreement (ISA) is a contract that makes education accessible — and for some schools, free — until students find a job. Institutions thus have skin in the game and cannot fail at training their students, who can access education without upfront tuition cost.

Cities also need to ensure that they have a diverse set of educational opportunities. As Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said, we need “to strengthen workforce readiness and increase the number of postsecondary pathways available to students.”

Universities are well designed to train academics and researchers, but are not the best at training workers with a relevant set of skills. Hands-on approaches like apprenticeships and project-based learning has proven to be adept at training professionals that can satisfy American top-tier company requirements. (The school that I cofounded, Holberton School, relies on project-based learning.)

Big tech is increasingly advocating for hands-on learning as well. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff pitched the President to push for apprenticeship and project-based education. My Holberton School received praise from LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, and its graduates are getting jobs at companies like Apple, Tesla, and LinkedIn. For students who cannot invest time in long-term training, bootcamps have proven to teach people just enough skills to get employers to hire them.

While Amazon HQ2 submissions were only open to North America, it’s worth noting that the high-skilled jobs that are local today could soon move overseas if cities don’t do a good enough job of preparing for the work of the future. By 2030, OECD estimates that 63 percent of STEM graduates will be in Asia. There is not a doubt that many companies will consider moving their operation to where the talent is, especially as our world is globalizing.

Cities must understand that a strong educational system is at the base of a solid economic future. Michigan, which saw its city of Detroit get rejected by Amazon, is on its way to passing a potential budget that could invest $ 95 million to “fill our talent pool with over 126,000 highly skilled and qualified IT workers by 2030,” according to a planning document provided to the Detroit News.

To the cities that will not become the Amazon HQ2 host: You’ve lost a battle, but you haven’t lost the war. It’s only getting started.

Sylvain Kalache currently resides in San Francisco and is the cofounder of Holberton School, a 2-year program training full-stack software engineers at scale.

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