Lee Schafer
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That Amazon.com Inc. was a little nervous about trying to recruit a lot of employees in a hurry here in the Twin Cities doesn’t seem like the kind of information that should be shared only on a need-to-know basis.

It’s not a particularly rare and precious insight. Executives of UnitedHealth Group might say the same thing.

The challenge of recruiting is what came out of feedback Amazon gave officials in our region, part of calls to most of the also-rans in the race to become a second headquarters town for Amazon.

A colleague here had been asking Greater MSP, the economic development group that led the state’s effort, for any Amazon feedback since last winter. That’s not long after the Twin Cities and more than 200 other metro areas were cut from the list of candidates and about when the Twin Cities got called the “clear loser” of this coast-to-coast contest by the Washington Post.

Apparently, we didn’t need to know.

Within hours of asking last week, Commissioner Shawntera Hardy of the Department of Employment and Economic Development cheerfully came on the phone to explain that we did get a call from Amazon, which she remembered as coming within a week of Amazon’s announcing its 20 finalists.

Amazon executives didn’t see a way to quickly recruit enough technology workers here. “It was the size of the demand, and within a year,” Hardy said.

As for public transit systems, international air transportation and other factors Amazon cared about, “we knocked it out of the park in those areas,” Hardy said. Taxpayer incentives “didn’t really come up” in the conversation.

As Hardy explained, the metro areas that decided to “bid” for the Amazon project with a taxpayer incentive package weren’t even responding to the RFP. Amazon hadn’t asked for a specific dollar bid.

There’s no reason to be surprised that Amazon would be concerned about the availability of the right employees, as that’s the reason it started planning for a second headquarters outside of its hometown of Seattle. As outlined in its request for proposal, there could be up to 50,000 new jobs. That kicked off an economic-development frenzy the likes of which no one had seen before.

The prospect of a second headquarters here for Amazon fell out of the daily conversation shortly after Amazon announced its 20 finalists in January. The topic only arose last week because the Wall Street Journal discussed how regions bumped from the competition took what they heard from Amazon and went to work trying to shore up the weaknesses that Amazon execs highlighted.

There’s no particular reason to think Amazon was trying to bamboozle state officials (and us) about the reasons behind this decision to boot the Twin Cities from its list of candidates. But among the 20 was Nashville, a metro area approximately half the size of the Twin Cities with a far lower percentage of residents working in so-called knowledge occupations or holding at least a college degree.

Sure, recruiting for 50,000 Amazon jobs will be a lot easier there.

Greater MSP finally did send an e-mail last week about this conversation with Amazon, and the only nuance it provided that Hardy did not was that part of Amazon’s talent shortage concern arose from the prospect of having to compete in a region where there are already a lot of vibrant employers.

Even with that nod to past successes, to find out that Amazon said its decision was about the availability of talent still seems particularly disappointing. We have gotten used to thinking of our big pool of smart and hardworking people as a strength of this region. It sure isn’t low taxes, mild winters or an abundant natural resource.

Our understanding of the talent available here isn’t delusional, either. The Twin Cities came in at eighth place, not far behind Seattle, in the share of its workforce in knowledge occupations, in a report last year of the top 25 “tech cities” by the real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield.

In the more narrowly defined niche of “tech workers,” the Twin Cities drops to 15th place, ahead of Amazon finalists Nashville and Columbus, Ohio, but behind places like Austin, Texas, and Denver. The Twin Cities is on the top half of this list of 25 tech cities in the percentage of the workforce with at least a bachelor’s degree, too.

These were measures of people who were already here and working, of course, and not any sort of indication of how hard it would be to recruit a lot more people like them.

When the question of whether recruiting could be a particular regional challenge was put to Paul DeBettignies, a high-profile recruiter in Minneapolis for technology companies, he simply rejected the whole premise.

“I think it would be easier — this is not being a homer by the way — it would be easier to recruit a sufficient number of people here compared to those other towns” on Amazon’s list of finalists, he said.

The trade-off between the quality of the career opportunity and the cost of living remains favorable for the Twin Cities, compared to places like Seattle. He shared data provided earlier this year by LinkedIn that showed the flow of people identifying themselves as technology workers has reversed itself from a few years ago.

According to LinkedIn numbers, over the previous year about 6,900 people with technology skills did leave the Twin Cities — but 7,500 arrived here from somewhere else. “Six hundred, that’s notable,” DeBettignies said. “That’s not like a hundred.”

Hardy, on the other hand, wasn’t surprised at all to hear concerns from Amazon about the availability of the right kind of employees here. It’s what she hears from other employers, too.

“It’s not just this industry,” she said. “It’s every industry in Minnesota that’s starving for talent.”