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Last week, headlines trumpeted the tax incentives being offered to Amazon in an effort to woo its new headquarters. As it eyes a home for HQ2, Amazon should focus less on tax incentives and instead choose a location where policymakers are committed to building a skills-based labor market that prepares workers for the digital economy.
History has shown that the quality of a skilled local workforce and a state’s support for constantly developing those skills is the most important factor for a company’s long-term success. But for Amazon, there’s a more important reason to focus on workforce development: By signaling to local governments that skills-focused policies will help them gain a competitive advantage in the future of work, Amazon has a rare opportunity to spark a national movement toward skills-based education and training initiatives.
The workforce challenges we face as a nation are clear: Over the past two decades, automation driven by digital technology has upended many of the jobs that once provided a foundation for comfortable middle-class lives. For example, more than five million Americans have lost manufacturing jobs to technology since 2000, and our economy is especially struggling to provide a path forward for the two-thirds of Americans who don’t have a college degree. Currently, more than six million well-paying jobs remain unfilled. These in-demand jobs—such as wind turbine technicians, software developers and information security analysts—tend to require technical skills.
The good news is, Americans know they must take action to keep up with our constantly-changing job market: Last fall, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the Markle Foundation found that 87 percent of workers recognize they need to get training and develop new skills throughout their lifetime to advance in the digital economy. And yet, 35 percent of respondents feel they don’t have the education and training they need to get ahead.
There are few companies that understand the need for skilled workers better than Amazon, a leader in the very technology – from Artificial Intelligence to drones to machine learning – that is altering our employment landscape. Even the most traditional jobs at Amazon – from maintenance to marketing to HR to the warehouse – require employees to use the latest digital software and devices to perform the most routine daily tasks.
In the early 20th Century, advocates for universal public high school brought attention to the communities where local businesses, educators, and governments had come together to create curricula that equipped Americans moving from farms to factories with the practical skills employers needed. Similarly, Amazon and the city or state chosen to host HQ2 could provide valuable insights into how educators, employers, and local governments are coming together to make skills training a priority once again.
Together, they could highlight how leading communities are building a flexible, skills-based labor market that uses timely data to help job seekers identify promising careers, relevant training and lifelong learning opportunities; help employers identify job seekers with the precise skills necessary to fill open positions; help educators identify the in-demand skills their students need; and help elected officials understand the new rules for how we train, hire, recruit and keep workers in the digital age.
America must build a system that produces the job skills necessary to succeed in the digital era on the scale of the one we had with the Industrial Revolution. That is why the Markle Foundation recently brought together public and private sector leaders from across the business, technology, labor, and education sectors to form the Rework America Task Force, which is gathering ideas and developing real solutions for building a new labor market that reflects the demands of today’s economy.
This is an opportunity to challenge cities and states to compete not on their tax codes but on their investments in workers and a training infrastructure for this economy. And in an economy changing by the day, that could be Amazon's most lasting contribution to the success of America and its digital labor market in the 21st Century.