What makes a good economic development project both for a community and for a developer?
That was the question put to a panel of civic, business and educational leaders from across the DMV and Amazon that WTOP convened to discuss the community partnerships formed as Amazon prepares to open the first phase of its second headquarters in Arlington, Virginia next year.
The panel represented a handful of the hundreds of organizations Amazon is working with across the metro region as it develops its new headquarters. We asked the participants to speak to their work with the company and to share thoughts about the potential impact they will have on education, training, and jobs in the region.
The panelists agreed that whatever the economic development project, it needs to be inclusive. As Northern Virginia Community College President Anne Kress put it, a good economic project should provide “opportunity for everyone at every level.”
Victor Hoskins concurred that equity and inclusiveness are key. Hoskins, president and CEO of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, led the team that successfully attracted Amazon’s HQ2 to Arlington.
“If an organization or company is coming into your community, you want it to, in some way, not only match your industry sectors that you’re trying to grow,” he said, “but you also want it to match the values and the culture of your region.”
Those same things matter to Amazon and were critical factors in selecting the Washington, D.C., metropolitan region as the home for the new Amazon facility, said Holly Sullivan, vice president of worldwide economic development for Amazon.
Sullivan shared that her work in the public sector for 20 years, before joining Amazon six-plus years ago, offers her a perspective on HQ2 from both the community and business side.
She pointed out that companies don’t see county lines or even state lines, but rather an entire region. Echoing Hoskins, Sullivan added that the company emphasized selecting a location that was the right “cultural fit within the community.”
In addition to the cultural fit, the D.C-Maryland-Virginia area also provides something critically important: the potential to provide a long talent pipeline, Sullivan said. The DMV can support both the infrastructure growth and people growth, she said. By 2030, Amazon will invest $2.5 billion to develop HQ2and create more than 25,000 thousand jobs across the region
Planning for job growth across the DMV as HQ2 expands
A pipeline of people to fill those new jobs was therefore an essential element, she said. “The amount of educational opportunities within this region is second to none compared to anywhere else in North America.”
No argument from George Mason University President Gregory Washington, who explained what it takes to tailor a workforce pipeline to fit the needs of the region and also the corresponding character and needs of a company.
“That’s actually a process,” Washington said. “You’ve got to have some of the right foundational pieces in place.” After that come the conversations that allow for the local community and its organizations to “start to tailor programs that meet the needs of that company and meet the needs of the region,” he said.
From the potential workforce’s perspective, opportunities are important. But one size doesn’t fit all, so a variety of onramps ensures the creation of opportunities for a wide pool of candidates, Washington and Kress said. That includes opportunities for people with graduate degrees, undergrad degrees, some college but no degree or some with no college at all. Some will be younger, others older and many in between.
It’s also critical to give people the chance to advance to higher paying jobs, Washington said. Additionally, outreach and awareness programs must begin well before the college years, he added. That needs to start with elementary school children, opening young minds to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.
Amazon has established partnerships not only with NOVA and George Mason, but with the University of Maryland, Virginia Tech, Arlington’s public high schools and middle schools, and other educational organizations across the region. In fact, PenPlace, Amazon’s second phase of HQ2, will house the Arlington Community High School, the 92-year-old alternative school’s very first permanent home.
The company intends to build long-term partnerships with both educational and community organizations because the needs of the region and of Amazon will continue to evolve, Sullivan said. “We are constantly investing and reinvesting in early education and skills training for adult learners alike, because what we need today in talent is going to be different five years from now and definitely 10 years from now,” she said.
Expanding job opportunities for local residents through upskilling
When it comes to helping adults already in the workforce prepare for new jobs and advancement, upskilling is the operative word. Developing training programs for adults is a way to create additional job opportunities for workers in the region, Hoskins said.
As an example, he noted a potential workforce source: military members transitioning out of the service. With the Pentagon in HQ2’s backyard, so to speak, veterans are ideal candidates for these training programs because they often have extensive backgrounds if not the specific job experience needed, Hoskins said. “They do need to be upskilled or reskilled, and we’ve had extraordinary outcomes.” Last year, Amazon pledged to hire 100,000 veterans and military spouses by 2024.
To provide more upskilling programs is one reason George Mason decided a couple of years ago “to move away from the ‘degree business’ and move into the ‘success business,’ ” Washington said. The goal? Meet people where they are and provide multiple pathways so they can get to where they need to be, he said.
It also gets back to those conversations that Washington mentioned earlier. Creating pathways for upskilling opportunities requires projecting where Amazon, the community and the world will be three, five and 10 years down the road, Sullivan said. “That’s why building that enthusiasm and introducing people in the region to Amazon now is so valuable,” she added.
NOVA’s Kress said “having all of these onramps provides a diverse pathway into a place like Amazon and beyond.” She also touted the inter-generational power of “somebody who’s being upskilled, then going home to talk to their own children about what they’re doing and what the world of technology looks like.” That inspires children about what’s possible for their own futures, Kress said.
Plus, short-term retraining opportunities can lead to new credentials and skill sets that let people advance their careers. In Virginia, for instance, FastForward offers certification programs, many of which last four months or less and that the state helps pay for, through the state’s community colleges. Typically, these programs can add about 26% to a person’s earnings, Kress said.
Christian Dorsey, vice-chair of the Arlington County Board, also endorsed partnerships where people can learn on the job, similar to apprenticeship programs in the construction trades. “You actually put people in the industry supporting and learning from someone who’s already doing the work, then ideally, structuring these programs so there’s a clearly identifiable outcome to that experiential engagement.”
In addition to partnering with educational institutions and civic groups to foster upskilling initiatives, Amazon also in the fall of 2022 opened an AWS Skills Center in Arlington near HQ2, Sullivan pointed out. It offers free training programs in cloud technology skills for the public and introduces people to potential jobs with Amazon and AWS, she said.