The Future of Work

Amazon HQ2 Search Exposes Gaps in America's Tech Workforce

Founder of TechGirlz

The race to win Amazon’s search for a second headquarters just ticked over into Phase Two. For many, like my hometown of Philadelphia, it brings with it an exciting validation and kicks off a new round of exuberant pitching. But for others, it’s a kick of a different kind -- and one that might prompt some collective soul searching.

Related: What Every Company Can Learn From Amazon's Search for a Second Headquarters

With Apple now ruminating on a possible new outpost and more companies sure to follow, what makes a region competitive in the modern age? Put another way, how has  Amazon’s hunt laid bare most cities’ lack of preparedness for the future of work in America? Based on my experience in the tech sector, helming a tech nonprofit and being a part of Philly’s search committee, it all comes down to a tech-enabled workforce.

While those within the technology sector take for granted the role it plays in our nation’s industry and even our daily lives, the vast majority of Americans associate tech with one of the big five brands -- Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft -- or as a mythical industry populated by people in hoodies or bunny suits. In reality, nearly every aspect of modern living and working has been touched by technology. By that, I mean some understanding, familiarity or proficiency in technology is required to operate our personal computers and phones, to stream television or program a DVR, to operate a 3D printer as a fashion designer, to log paint formulas on a plastics factory floor, to design a website for or market the family dairy business -- the list goes on and on.

Related: These 5 Cities Pulled Out All the Stops to Get Amazon's HQ2. They Didn't Make the Cut, But We Salute the Attempt.

Despite this everyday ubiquity, there remains a stubborn lack of tech-familiar workers to fill open jobs. It is forecast that the technology industry will have more than one million unfilled jobs by the year 2020. So, how do the cities that did not make round two compete for the next Amazon? Even major manufacturing operations and assembly line work will require some level of tech proficiency. And because lifestyle and tax breaks alone cannot lure a company, the real question is how these cities will prepare their workforce to land the employers of the future.

This is doubly true during a low unemployment period like today. The country is currently at near zero percent unemployment. This means your region must either attract qualified workers from other areas or train them. This requires an incredible mindshift and degree of coordination amongst public and private organizations and from the factory floor to the C-suite. Here are a few things to keep in mind:  

1. Technology is more than coding and software.

It is a vast industry that includes marketers who must use the latest tools to promote a message, designers that leverage data for visualization or teams that use drones for logistics and delivery. So, begin with an understanding of the non-technical technologist as a way to broaden your reach and impact.

Related: Leaders of Alibaba, Google, IBM and Others Share What You Need to Do to Thrive in Today's World

2. Expanding your workforce pipeline not only requires a new understanding of what constitutes technology, but also who is qualified to be a technologist.

Recruiting people from diverse populations immediately increases your talent pool. It’s also appealing to employers as studies show that a more diverse workforce makes a company more competitive and economically successful.

3. Think beyond jobs.

Of course, it’s key to train your next generation of workers, but you must also think about the generation behind them and on down the line. Develop programs to adjust public school curricula, launch after school training opportunities, and train up teachers and educators. Vocational education for technology-enabled jobs is also key.

4. Studies have also shown that people learn best in environments familiar to them -- home, work and at play.

Invest in civic infrastructure like libraries and community spaces where people can access computers, launch clubs, and host robotics competitions or other technology events.

Related: Prepare for the Future Being Shaped by These 5 Critical Trends

5. And if we’ve learned anything from the world of technology, it’s that it remains in constant motion.

So, we cannot train just for today, we must put programs in place to continually advance and expand our workers’ areas of expertise through on-the-job and supplementary training.

Admittedly, the tide is beginning to turn and the early seeds of change have already been planted in many cities outside the orbit of Silicon Valley, but that hope to replicate it with monikers like Silicon Prairie, Silicon Alley or Silicon Bayou. For years, as an engaged citizen in Philadelphia I was the token technologist assigned to committees and represented at press conferences. Now, with the second phase of the Amazon search in full swing, I am encouraged by the growth of tech advocates around me. The key will be turning them into partners even if Amazon chooses to go elsewhere so that we -- and other cities -- are better positioned for ultimate success in the new reality of technology-enabled work and life in America.