Could a 'hidden base of tech talent' help Cincinnati land Amazon HQ2?

Expert: Headquarters like other headquarters

CINCINNATI - We are the undermost of underdogs in national media accounts of Amazon Inc.’s hunt for a second headquarters.

The number crunchers at The New York Times, CBS News, Bloomberg, City Lab and The Seattle Times have all found Cincinnati lacking in job growth, tech talent and college graduates. None of them identified Cincinnati as a contender for Amazon's HQ2. But what if the impossible happened? Could Cincinnati actually fill all the technology jobs that would be created by Amazon's $5 billion expansion?

On the surface, it seems to be a stretch. After all, Cincinnati already has a skills gap in tech talent, with about 2,000 IT jobs currently unfilled. In addition, our region ranked 27th in a March study by the Brookings Institution of the cities growing technology jobs the fastest. Cincinnati added 1,800 tech jobs from 2013 to 2015. Boston, Dallas and Austin, Texas each logged more than five times that growth. And even if Amazon wanted a middle of the country hub, Cincinnati’s numbers are outshined by Denver, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Madison, Wisconsin, Kansas City and Pittsburgh.

The New York Times picked Denver as the best fit for the Amazon HQ2 because of its tech talent, quality of life scores and ease of commuting.

But those numbers could be deceiving, said Geoff Smith, co-chairman of the Cincinnati CIO Roundtable, a trade group run by technology bosses at 25 local employers with a combined IT staff of 8,000 people.

“While we don’t have tech companies we do have a lot of Fortune 1000 companies, each with very strong in-house IT operations,” Smith said. “So, there is kind of a hidden base of tech talent, mature tech talent that may or may not be obvious from the outside.”

CBS News scratched Cincinnati off its list because less than a third of its population has a bachelor's degree.

Cincinnati’s viability as a headquarters town could be its biggest strength in the quest for Amazon’s HQ2, said Josh Wright, director of economic development for EMSI, a data analytics firm. Wright said Cincinnati has 39,500 people working in “corporate, subsidiary and regional managing office jobs,” which is 2.6 times the national average.

“Cincinnati's share of corporate HQ jobs is higher than any large city other than Fayetteville and Akron,” Wright said. “Headquarters like other headquarters.”

General Electric certainly does.

“Southwest Ohio's talent pool was among the biggest reasons why GE chose to locate to Cincinnati,” said Tina Drozdz, a human resources executive who helped recruit more than 1,400 employees since 2014 to GE’s Global Operations Center at The Banks.

“We have been successful at recruiting talent from local universities, experienced talent from larger firms in the area and internal transfers who chose to relocate to Cincinnati from other states in the U.S. and also internationally. The roles hired at the center are mainly in the fields of finance and accounting along with some roles in supply chain, commercial operations and digital.”

Denver, Toronto and Dallas were among "six viable candidates" identified by Bloomberg View columnist Conor Sen.

But EMSI data show a mismatch between available tech talent in Cincinnati and the jobs most likely to be sought by Amazon if it established a second headquarters here. Wright compared Amazon's Seattle job listings to social media resume postings in a dozen major cities, comparing how readily each town would be able to match 50 skills sought by Amazon. The top performers -- San Francisco, Austin, Denver and Boston -- all matched at least 29 of the 50 skills analyzed. Cincinnati matched only 12.

Amazon’s HQ2 search was a top of mind topic at the CIO Roundtable’s IT Symposium, a gathering of about 200 tech executives at Xavier University’s Cintas Center Sept. 20.

Smith organized the event. The former Procter & Gamble Co. executive has been working for several years to close the skills gap for tech jobs in Cincinnati. Despite his efforts, Cincinnati still has about 2,000 unfilled IT positions. The region’s colleges have expanded their talent pipelines, but not enough to fill the void.

Smith estimates a dozen local college programs are now turning out nearly 1,000 graduates annually, but he estimates 8,000 new computer science jobs will be created in Cincinnati by 2020 -- without Amazon.

Denver, Austin and New Orleans made the "ultimate list of top contenders" compiled by The Atlantic's online publication, CityLab.

The good news, Smith said, is that Cincinnati has demonstrated an ability to grow the pipeline with internships, promotional campaigns in high schools and training programs for non-degree students.

Smith said CIO Roundtable companies have filled 300 local jobs by sending applicants to learn basic skills at coding boot camps and other training programs. Events such as TechOlympics and IT Careers Camps have convinced more high school students to enroll in computer science degree programs.

At Northern Kentucky University, such enrollment has tripled in the last 10 years to more than 1,000 students. NKU awarded 148 degrees in computer science, data science and information technology last year. About 90 percent of its students stay in the region after graduation.

“If you look at Amazon, they have about 1,000 graduates from the University of Washington,” said James Walden, associate professor in the department of computer science at Northern Kentucky University.

Amazon’s Seattle headquarters employs about 40,000. HQ2 is expected to create up to 50,000 jobs over 10 to 15 years, with software development engineers listed as one of five key employment categories in Amazon’s search process.

Walden thinks NKU and other local colleges would expand their programs if Amazon located here, making Cincinnati a more viable option.

“I think we can provide as many local graduates as they’re used to seeing in Seattle,” Walden said.

Amazon would also pull talent from existing local headquarters, said Ken Martin, managing partner in the information technology practice at Lucas Group. The executive search firm places about 40 IT professionals in new jobs every year in Cincinnati. Martin said it’s definitely a seller’s market. Job seekers with the right skills often find three to five employers bidding for their talents. Amazon would only intensify that.

“It would maybe shake up the market a little bit,” Martin said. “If you have the right technology skill set, say an application developer, you may have people like me calling you all the time.”

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