The lack of a "blueprint for talent" was one of the reasons online retail giant Amazon didn't choose the St. Louis region for its new headquarters, the CEO of an economic development agency said Wednesday at a Belleville Chamber of Commerce breakfast.
The Seattle-based company provided feedback after the region fell out of the running, saying a lack of a ready workforce was one of the reasons it passed, said Sheila Sweeney, CEO of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, the economic development agency for St. Louis City and County.
If it wants to attract a major tech company like Amazon in the future, Sweeney said, the region will have to develop a stronger base of workers ready to take on the highly-skilled jobs required.
Though the Amazon proposal cites numbers indicating St. Louis has "a tech talent labor pool in excess of 52,000," almost half of the region's population over the age of 25 have a high school diploma but no college education, according to a report by St. Louis Community College Workforce Solutions Group.
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A 2017 survey of more than 1,000 area employers analyzed in the report shows "a shortage of workers with knowledge and skills is their most significant barrier to expanding employment." Employers also said lack of transportation access is a barrier to expansion.
But Sweeney and other area economic development leaders said the region has plenty of good things to offer to potential future businesses, and the Amazon experience taught them more about attracting major companies.
The very public Amazon search was an exception in the economic development world, said St. Clair County Economic Developer Terry Beach. Normally, a company will send out representatives to sniff out a good deal. Oftentimes, economic development directors don't even know who the representatives are representing, Beach said.
Not so in the case of Amazon.
After Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced the company's nationwide search for a new location in September, cities across the country went into a "feeding frenzy" in an attempt to attract the headquarters and 50,000 jobs, Beach said.
The sudden announcement didn't give city leaders a lot of time to prepare. Sweeney said if they had been able to develop St. Louis' "blueprint for talent" a few years prior, the region could have had a better chance.
More than 500 cities and regions scrambled to submit their bids, with one city in Georgia even saying it would change its name for Amazon. The (St. Louis) Riverfront Times joked about building a wormhole in the St. Louis Arch for Amazon. But in January, Amazon announced only 20 finalists. The St. Louis region was not one of them.
It was a disappointment, Beach said, but leaders learned a "regional lesson" in how to work together.
Never before had regional leaders worked together on such an intense project, Sweeney said. Intergovernmental agencies had cooperated on building bridges and roads between Illinois and Missouri, but not a headquarters bid for one of the most valuable companies in the world.
They didn't have much time. Bezos announced the race in September, and bids were due in October. Area leaders met every Monday for six weeks to work on the project. In that time, they developed a proposal, a website and several videos promoting the region.
"When we work together, we can do something amazing," said Linda Martínez, deputy mayor of development for the city of St. Louis. "We developed a lot of resources we can use for other companies."
But the region needs to "build on its assets" and be proud, Sweeney said. The proposal sent to Amazon touted the region's public transportation options, educational opportunities and logistics infrastructure.
"We're humble Midwesterners, but we should not be any longer," Sweeney said. "If you go through this proposal and see all the assets that St. Louis has ... It is a tremendous place to live and to work and operate business and to raise your family and to have fun."
Regional initiatives at strengthening the workforce include, according to St. Louis Community College:
- LaunchCode: Offers classes in technology and engineering fields. Connects students with apprenticeships. Founded by Square co-founder Jim McKelvey.
- CoderGirl: A specific program of LaunchCode aimed at closing the gender gap in St. Louis technology jobs.
- St. Louis Community College is a Registered Apprenticeship College Consortium connecting students to apprenticeships.
St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council's Building Union Diversity: An apprenticeship with construction unions for minorities, women and St. Louis residents with or without construction experience.
BioSTL: Partners with various St. Louis employment and training agencies to provide on-the-job training.