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Editorial: What's Amazon's new expansion tells us (and it's not good)

Editorial: What's Amazon's new expansion tells us (and it's not good)

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Remember when the internet was supposed to bring about “the death of distance” and usher in a rural renaissance?

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

Remember when the pandemic was going to herald a new era of telecommuting and, yes, usher in that long-promised rural renaissance?

Sorry, it’s not happening, either.

Well, it might be happening somewhere, on a small scale, but it’s not happening with one of the biggest and fast-growing companies in the land.

Amazon recently announced it’s creating 3,500 new tech and corporate jobs, but that’s not really the big news. What got attention in most business circles was that Amazon isn’t adding remote jobs, it’s adding jobs in actual offices. The Wall Street Journal hailed this as “an indication the tech giant is making long-term plans around office work even as other companies embrace lasting remote employment.” Indeed, that’s what Amazon itself said. “The ability to connect with people, the ability for teams to work together in an ad hoc fashion — you can do it virtually, but it isn’t as spontaneous,” the company’s vice president for workforce development told the The Wall Street Journal. “We are looking forward to returning to the office.”

Here’s what other commentators noted: None of these jobs are in Seattle. The rationale behind Amazon’s HQ2 was that there wasn’t room to expand anymore in Seattle, so this move simply follows that same direction. The new jobs are distributed among Dallas, Detroit, Denver, New York, Phoenix, and San Diego — all places where it has existing offices.

Now, here’s what we notice: All these are in big cities. All — with the possible exception of Detroit — are in predictable cities, cities already identified as tech hubs. Even Detroit isn’t that unpredictable for those who know tech. It may stand as the epitome of a declining Rust Belt city to some but for those paying closer attention, it’s also a city in the process of reinventing itself as a tech hub. A 2015 study ranked Detroit as the 15th biggest tech hub in the country. Amazon already has an office with 400 tech workers in Detroit; this move adds 100 more. So, really, all six cities here are predictable.

What’s wrong with that? you ask.

Here’s what’s wrong: Why isn’t Amazon putting those jobs in Roanoke or Lynchburg or Danville or Martinsville or Bristol or Waynesboro or any number of other places that would be considered unlikely?

There are some practical reasons, of course. It’s always easier for a company to expand in places where it already is than to open in a completely new city. Amazon’s own statement points to another reason: “These 3,500 new jobs will be in cities across the country with strong and diverse talent pools.” That highlights two points we’ve written about more times than we care to count. Smaller communities, by definition, have smaller labor pools. Here in this part of Virginia, our labor pools can’t match the ones in those cities in another way — we’re not as educated.

Of the six cities where Amazon is expanding, the least-educated is Detroit, where 30.1% of working-age adults have a college degree. (It’s just behind Phoenix, which comes in at 30.3%). The most-educated is Denver, where the figure is 42.1%. If you’re Amazon (or any other company) looking to hire for tech jobs, you look at those statistics and figure it should be easy to hire for the positions you need.

Now let’s look at Virginia, particularly our part of Virginia. In parts of Northern Virginia, more than 70% of working-age adults have a college degree — one reason why Amazon HQ2 is headed to Arlington (where the figure is 74.1%). In this part of Virginia, the best-educated community is Montgomery County, home of Virginia Tech, which weighs in at 46.3% — but in raw numbers Montgomery County sure can’t compete against The Amazon Six. In Roanoke County, 34.7% of working-age adults have college degrees, which makes it stand out in the region — but still puts it below the national average of 36%. Lynchburg comes in at 33.6%, Roanoke at 23.2%, Bristol at 23% and Waynesboro at 22.3%. In much of Southwest and Southside Virginia, the figure is in the teens — Danville comes in at 18.9% — or even lower. In Dickenson County, 9.3%,; in Greensville County, 7.5%.

With figures like that, there is simply no way those localities can compete for tech jobs — even if Amazon decided to engage in some geographical affirmative action and intentionally locate some of its jobs in unexpected places. That’s why former Gov. Gerald Baliles said that Southwest and Southside Virginia needed a modern-day Marshall Plan to raise educational attainment — and why one of the top priorities for local governments is to persuade more college graduates to stay in the region. These figures also show why immigration is so important to economic development. The Census Bureau says that 47.4% of the immigrants who arrived in the U.S. between 2010 and 2019 had a college degree or higher. If immigrants are really taking American jobs, it’s because Americans haven’t prepared themselves for those jobs, so whose fault is that? Statistically speaking, Southwest and Southside Virginia need an influx of those immigrants if the region is going to stand any chance of attracting tech jobs — either that, or the people already here better go back to school, and in a hurry. Which is it going to be?

While we’re making uncomfortable observations, let’s make another. Notice that Amazon said it went looking for “diverse talent pools.” Are we diverse? That question answers itself. Do you think that Confederate statue in front of the courthouse helps with economic development? Or do you think it possibly hurts? What kind of signal do you think it sends?

Now, to be fair, we could raze every Confederate statue in sight and put up ones to Jeff Bezos instead and that still wouldn’t be enough to persuade Amazon to put some of these jobs in rural America. What would? Here’s a hard answer: Maybe nothing. Here’s another one: It might require a literal act of Congress, or at least political “persuasion” tied to whatever regulation the tech giants are seeking to escape. But that would require two other things: It would require Democrats to take an interest in a part of the country that’s unlikely to vote for them again and for Republicans to intervene in the economy in ways that their limited-government philosophy doesn’t allow.

That might be a great question to ask certain candidates, eh? Or are they OK with rural areas being economically left behind?

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