Tech talent will be key in Greater Washington’s courtship of Amazon, others

April 30, 2018
By The 2030 Group

By: Daniel J. Sernovitz

Greater Washington’s ability to train the workforce of tomorrow could be a competitive disadvantage in the region’s courtship of Amazon.com Inc. and other major corporate brands that rely on a steady flow of tech talent.

The issue was top of mind during the Seattle-based e-commerce and cloud computing company’s recent visit to the D.C. area, and it is one that the region will have to come together to address in the future, Bob Buchanan, president of The 2030 Group, said during a panel discussion Monday morning.

After all, he said, Amazon officials are looking for more than just the size of the region’s workforce — a metric otherwise highly touted in the Washington region. But a recent Greater Washington Partnership report found the region has as many as 35,000 tech positions unfilled.

“It was workforce, alright, but how smart is that workforce?” Buchanan said. “How do we know if that workforce can be retrained and be cutting edge for the types of skills we’re going to need? So that interaction with academic — and we have great universities here and we have great school systems here — but it needs to be on an ongoing basis going forward so that the Amazons and others who need that innovative workforce know that we’re cutting edge.”

Buchanan moderated Monday’s Amazon HQ2 panel as part of The 2030 Group’s Third Annual Roadmap for Washington Region’s Economic Future, a series that has sought to highlight those areas with the potential for regional cooperation and improvement. Greater Washington hosts three of the 20 areas Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) included in its short list for HQ2, as the company has dubbed its second headquarters.

The company expects to need up to around 8 million square feet, with a workforce growing to around 50,000 people or more, many of whom are expected to be software engineers and the like. And the pipeline of future employees will likely be a determining factor as Amazon nears a final selection.

“There’s a mismatch,” said Arlington Economic Development Director Victor Hoskins, who also spoke on the panel. “Our cybersecurity, big data, [artificial intelligence], the software degrees and the engineering degrees and in those areas, we do not produce enough of them. We spend a lot of time attracting them to this region and we sometimes have a difficult time keeping them in this region. And so that really is the thing we need to work on the most.”

The key, said David Petr, CEO of the Montgomery County Economic Development Corp., is creating an education ecosystem that crosses state lines and helps to create a stronger pipeline of future tech employees. It’s a regional dialogue that needs to last, he said, well after Amazon has made its choice.

“When I first got here a year and a half ago, I didn’t feel that sense of collaboration in the region,” said Petr, who started in his current job in July 2016. “It really took Amazon for the economic development conversation to shift between boundaries and silos and “what’s going to come to me” as opposed to “what’s going to happen for the region.” So I’m very hopeful that when it comes to Montgomery County, or when it comes to Northern Virginia, or when it comes to Washington, D.C., that the leadership that you’re seeing on the stage and in this room continues, that it doesn’t become back to the old way of doing business in the region.”

The HQ2 cause might be enough to bring the region’s often competing jurisdictions together to help solve the age-old challenge, even as the Apples and Googles of the world also scope out markets around the country for new campuses and offices.

“If we have a goal that is valuable for each one of us, then we have a reason to collaborate,” said Brian Kenner, D.C.’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development. “We do not collaborate for altruistic reasons, the same way that companies do not work with other companies for altruistic reasons. We are paid to make sure that taxes, jobs and all of those things that are in economic development occur within our borders.”

Read the full story at the Washington Business Journal