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Sunday, November 29, 2015
It’s time cities played a game of their own. In exchange for tax breaks, cities should have companies train those residents who might lose out if Amazon comes to town. We’ve seen what happened in the Bay area, when long-term city dwellers who weren’t drawing hefty paychecks from the likes of Apple, Facebook or Google were priced out of their neighborhoods.
“Silicon Valley tech companies love to build super awesome campuses that their employees will never want to leave,” writes reporter Emma Grey Ellis, “[T]hey’re also at least partially responsible for tech’s biggest sins: a lack of diversity and gentrification.”
Amazon is skilled at using competition to its advantage, receiving financial benefits from multiple cities that use them as inducements to have a piece of one of the largest companies in the world. The economic development policy group Good Jobs First, a watchdog of sorts that has documented Amazon’s exchanges with cities preceding the competition, found that “Amazon has continued to receive subsidies from cities valued at least $115 million (not including four deals of undisclosed value), for a long-term total exceeding $1 billion.”
What’s less clear is what cities stand to gain from participating. Who gains the most? Upwards of 50,000 hires at an average salary of $100,000 is certainly a benefit to the home of HQ2, not to mention the $5 billion in capital expenditures Amazon plans to fork over to build it. However, the RFP also states, “A highly educated labor pool is critical and a strong university system is required.” Amazon wants people who are already “work ready,” in a city that already possesses the educational institutions to produce them.
More high-paying jobs should not be the sole measure of reward. Sure, if your mayor is selling your city, you’d like to see more and better-paying jobs in return. But if you’re not working at a place like Amazon, its presence can price you out, and divide your city into enclaves of the haves and have-nots.
What if we used innovation and competition to build inclusive economies instead?
The gambit of offering tax incentives while promoting the idea that employees must enter the door “work ready” is decreasing cities’ and states’ abilities to fund the building of an inclusive workforce.
We share a collective responsibility in training those who don’t yet have the skills to work at places like Amazon. Schools, universities and private industry all play a role. Each needs resources to do the arduous work of training underrepresented folk in industries that have left them in the dust. However, the gambit of offering tax incentives while promoting the idea that employees must enter the door “work ready” is decreasing cities’ and states’ abilities to fund the building of an inclusive workforce.
Businesses can eradicate racial and educational disparities in the workforce tomorrow if they hire underrepresented groups today, though it’s unreasonable to think companies will hire people not ready for the job. Still, it’s also not right for companies to absolve themselves from participating in training people. Schools clearly can’t shoulder all the responsibility of preparing the public for the workforce — that has long been the model, and it is not working for everyone.

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