Throughout history, there have been a number of bad technological predictions. These have ranged from the British Post Office claiming they didn’t need the telephone in 1876 because they already had plenty of messenger boys, to the inventor of Ethernet predicting the Internet’s demise in 1995. Sadly, it’s likely that the winners of the Amazon HQ2 locations, New York and Northern Virginia, will make a series of similar technology blunders as they prepare for their newly-acquired golden goose.
Since the Amazon HQ2 search first launched in September of 2017, major publications from The New York Times to Vox have associated the company with “tech jobs" in the majority of their reporting. But the assumption that this massive organization is simply a creator of computer science positions is as mistaken as the 1981 prediction that nobody would ever need more than 637KB of memory.
There is a growing awareness that not all of the new Amazon jobs in Northern Virginia will be “tech jobs," according to The Wall Street Journal. Indeed, other positions will include everything from administration to building maintenance to HR. A closer look at the Amazon job site reveals that among other non-computer science areas, the company is looking for those skilled in marketing and public relations as well as in management and communications.
Yet local colleges are intent on preparing for a slew of Amazon HQ2 “tech" jobs by saturating Northern Virginia with computer science graduates — and spending billions in the process. It’s like IBM telling Xerox back in the 1950s that the market for copy machines would never exceed 5,000. Both moves are short-sighted.
As Patrick Griffin and Esther Care write in their book Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills, “Teachers need to prepare students for jobs that have not yet been created." This involves utilizing something called “active learning."
Active Learning is defined as “the practice of requiring students to do things and think about what they are doing." As simple as it sounds, this has been proven to get results. But there’s a lot of resistance to the active learning methodology, even in the tech field. “Research has shown that active learning promotes student learning and increases retention rates of STEM undergraduates. Yet, instructors are reluctant to change their teaching approaches for several reasons, including a fear of student resistance to active learning," according to Sneha Tharayil and several co-authors in the International Journal of STEM Education.
As an instructor, I understand these concerns. Students raised in the era of the No Child Left Behind Act are used to being “taught to the test," and fear a deviation from this learning mode. But low-stakes creative classroom exercises can engage students with active problem-solving, which is an invaluable skill in today’s business world. And a look through Amazon’s job listings reveals that the company is seeking candidates who can think outside the box.
There’s another factor that Virginia doesn’t seem to have considered in the rush to win Amazon HQ2: the high cost of living. They could learn a lesson from the experiences of the Dutch, who discovered the hard way that a gold mine in your backyard is not always a good thing.
“Dutch Disease" refers to what happened in Holland when North Sea oil was discovered. Many residents of the Netherlands, expecting to cash in on a petroleum windfall, instead found themselves priced out of their homes and communities as costs around them soared.
Will a lucky professional who lands one of the 50,000 new jobs at one of the HQ2 outposts, with its expected average salary of $150,000, be able to afford rent in Virginia’s National Landing? Especially as prices are inflated with the expectation of more money flooding into both places?
Have planners considered who will be teaching the kids of Amazon workers? How will these societies be managed? How will services reach workers in areas where housing, premium education, infrastructure, and transit are already saturated? We already know that these problems will exist; we have seen such issues play out for Google and the rest of Silicon Valley in California, where rent and housing prices, commutes, and getting into the right school district are serious issues for workers. Solving these thorny community problems will be more complex than introducing new tech degree options at local colleges.
Clearly, Northern Virginia needs to plan for a slew of non-tech jobs, ranging from those in community organization and public administration to education and social work. And local policymakers better consider the implications of price hikes, inflation, rent, and transportation saturation. These are jobs that haven’t yet been created—but history tells us that they need to be planned for.
If you’re hoping to snag a job working for an unconventional company like Amazon, here are a few tips. Too often, candidates write a laundry list of things they have done at prior positions, like an inventory of tasks. Non-traditional students also tend to focus on their weaknesses, like years outside of the workforce, while forgetting about their strengths. Few center their applications on what they will be able to do for the company they are pursuing.
No matter what role you’re applying to fill, it’s best to keep things positive. Learn what the company is looking for, and focus on what you can do to contribute to this goal. Study job descriptions closely rather than firing off a generic list of the job duties you’ve already performed.
The main focus of your resume should be what you’ve accomplished; this includes problems you’ve overcome. For example, while interviewing college-age applicants for a company in the Northern Virginia area, my team asked everyone to any list honors, conference presentations, publications, or other academic achievements they had to their name. Most prospective employees left that section blank. Those who did not, and who could demonstrate that they had done something more than take tests, write papers, and get grades while in school, were moved to another pile and were thus one step closer to an interview.
Remember that while resumes will get your foot in the door, interviews will seal the deal. Keep the focus on what you can do and what you have done; don’t simply provide a list of your prior responsibilities.
“There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home," the CEO of Digital Equipment Corp famously said in 1977. To avoid a similarly off-base tech prediction regarding Amazon, policymakers and education leaders need to prepare a new type of position—one not limited to a computer science and a content memorization curriculum.
The graduates of tomorrow need to be taught to be “active learners." Their resumes should reflect an ability to solve problems, think creatively, and provide a positive “can-do" approach. In addition, they must learn to demonstrate their accomplishments rather than list their duties.
Just as universities and instructors must adapt to the needs of this changing technological landscape, community planners should avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. When computer start-up companies mushroomed into areas of California without the necessary social and infrastructure support, high costs of living, transportation, and raising a family excluded many innovative thinkers and problem solvers from pursuing work in this sector.
If Northern Virginia fails to adapt to these considerations? We might be adding a few names and quotes to the long list of historical blunders in the tech world.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Twitter account is JohnTures2.