This post originally appeared in the Boston Business Journal.
Since Amazon announced its plans to open a second headquarters location, the region has been abuzz, but, to date, the focus has been on real estate. Where can 8 million square feet of space be developed? Does it need to be in one location or multiple sites?
Amazon, however, is not really looking for space. It is looking for people. These are the skilled workers that fuel the local economy, due to the region’s exceptional ability to attract students and immigrants.
So, while we are spending so much time and effort to present the best site for Amazon’s real estate decision makers, we had better be equally as focused contemplating the human resource side. Where will Amazon’s workers come from? Will they be relocating from other areas around the country?
Reality paints a different picture. Other than the post 2009 recession years, Massachusetts has experienced consistent net domestic migration. We are currently close to full employment. There are few workers available and qualified for the jobs that are currently open. Therefore, it’s more likely that these Amazon workers will come from other local companies. The critical question is how will those companies survive and grow with an even tighter job market? Will they, in turn, be forced to relocate?
To make matters even more complex and challenging, there is a multiplier effect with a company like Amazon establishing a major local presence. Other companies will look to locate near this “mother ship” and many of the service companies in the area will have to bulk up to handle the additional demand. As a result, there may be a need for upwards of 150,000 more positions to fill over the next 10+ years.
The dog that chases the car, but then catches it, had better have a plan for what happens next. If we are serious about getting Amazon to choose Massachusetts, let’s strategize about what it would take to actually increase our labor force. As with the Olympics, planning for the possibility of success can be a beneficial, long term, strategic exercise. In any case, we should prepare ourselves for sustainable growth, whether, or not, any individual company locates here.
Three strategies for retaining more skilled workers and attracting others to come here should be pursued. The first deals with the issue of the high cost of living. The second is job training/retraining. The last is immigration policy.
The primary component of the cost of living is housing. We need to produce more affordable, urban housing, and also open up opportunities for “starter homes” for families in communities that are accessible to the new jobs and with good school systems. Schools, commuting time, and affordability are what drive home purchases (particularly for families). Unfortunately, local zoning in most of the Commonwealth discourages multi-family housing, as well as smaller, denser single-family homes.
As for job training, we will need to adapt our institutions and training pathways to help workers acquire new skills. We have not been sufficiently agile to respond to the needs of those businesses that are expanding and hiring. Even a college degree is not sufficient to guarantee a new job in the new economy. New training methods that can be adapted and adjusted in short order will be needed to fine tune a prospect’s skill set to match a company’s requirements. Lifelong learning that is priced right, available on demand, and responsive to the changing needs of the workplace must become the norm.
Finally, we have benefited greatly by the historic flow of immigrants. Were it not for immigration, we would not have accommodated the strong economic growth over the last 20 years. Local and state leaders must flex their political muscles to ensure that our national policies do not impede the beneficial impact that comes from a wide range of skills entering and fueling our economy.
Yes, we can benefit from a thoughtful strategy to attract Amazon to our region. But, over time, we will be well served with a realistic plan to increase our skilled workforce that will be the honey that easily attracts many more companies to locate and expand here.