Lessons from wooing Amazon: Ky. must grow volume, quality of workforce

Associated Press

Much attention has been generated around the decision by Amazon, Inc., to locate a new headquarters facility somewhere in the eastern half of the United States. The projected $5 billion investment, and promise of 50,000 jobs, attracted more than 200 communities, all seeking to be the new home for the economic-development bonanza the project would create.

Like all but 20 finalists, Louisville did not measure up to the standards Amazon was seeking. Rather than sulk about being rejected, we thought we ought to use the experience to learn what it takes to attract employers looking for new locations to generate high-wage, 21st century jobs.

Every state and every community was able to offer attractive tax incentives and access to space that could meet Amazon’s needs. There were, however, other, far more important considerations: most notably access to highly educated talent, and lots of it.

In addition, Amazon is seeking a location that provides a stable, business-friendly environment, strong cultural amenities and good schools to support the growth of their future workforce. They also require access to international airports, along with universities with strong programs in software development and recognized research in other vital disciplines.

Undoubtedly, there will be other companies — perhaps not as big or as lucrative — willing to consider Kentucky because of our strong cultural and geographic attributes. The business climate here is stable, particularly with right-to-work legislation enacted last year, and corporate tax reform that is on the horizon.

Kentuckians have always been hardworking, but we need to recognize the world of work is changing. Employers are looking for people who are good with their heads; not just good with their hands.

Today’s industries need creative thinkers, strong leaders, collaborative team members in every position. It is in this regard that we are falling short — not because Kentuckians aren’t as smart as people from other states, but because too few Kentuckians are pursuing the levels of education and training to meet the demands of these newer, higher wage industries.

Quite simply, Kentucky lost the Amazon bid, and will continue to lose these kinds of opportunities, until we can produce the volume and quality of talent needed by the new economy.

So what to do?

First, we need to get more of our youth and working-age adults more highly educated. The cities selected by Amazon have clusters of high-quality universities and thousands of students getting educated in areas of study that will support the work Amazon intends to pursue. Those universities are supporting research in areas of study that will drive the next round of innovations in a myriad of endeavors.

Second, we need to be strategic. What industries are key to high-wage growth in Kentucky? What technologies are critical to their future? Are we attracting researchers to our universities with expertise in those technologies? If not, what will it take to attract them here?

Third, once identified, can we attract the teams and build the facilities to pursue advances in those technologies in partnership with our companies, our universities and our economic development resources?

Focused commitments of this sort will be vital in attracting new companies dependent on these technologies, while encouraging our current employers with similar needs to expand here. They don’t need to be Amazon, or create 50,000 new jobs here. But finding the key to attracting high wage, technology dependent employers to the commonwealth can be done if we learn from this experience and follow through with investments that will turn Kentucky into a finalist, rather than an also ran.

Bob King is president of the Council on Postsecondary Education.