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Six months ago, Amazon announced its initiative to open up a second headquarters outside its Seattle hub—and cities across North America have been at a fever pitch ever since. Amazon received a staggering 238 proposals, and it’s easy to understand why: Amazon’s secondary headquarters will bring with it more than 50,000 knowledge workers with an average annual salary exceeding $100,000. The gains from the economic development offered by Amazon are momentous: it’s why one analyst called it “one of the highest-profile corporate site selection competitions in history.”

And while Amazon’s HQ2 site selection process is fascinating to watch from a macro perspective, it also has powerful lessons for HR and talent leaders. In the Amazon HQ2 RFP, Amazon stated they were looking for an “urban or suburban location with the potential to attract and retain strong technical talent.” So, while Amazon’s HQ2 selection has a lot of implications for cities, so too does it for any corporation deciding where to invest or relocate to ensure a suitable talent pipeline.

In January, Amazon whittled those 238 proposals down to a list of their final 20 contenders. And while Amazon will never truly let us in on their research and their decision, this list offers a look into how one of the most successful modern companies thinks about business, growth and talent. It also brings up the question: Does a company bring talent into a city? Or does talent bring a company to a city?


The Curious Case of Detroit’s Elimination

Detroit was eliminated from the running—despite what many analysts considered to be a phenomenal bid—primarily due to “lack of talent.” While this could be based on a few different factors—such as Detroit’s K-12 education quality, proximity to top universities, and ability to attract out-of-state talent—this elimination is particularly interesting because it demonstrates the growing relationship between employers and the cities they may operate in.

What does Detroit’s elimination mean for corporate recruiters and talent acquisition professionals? If you’re not a tech company in the heart of Silicon Valley, not only do you need to market the job and company to attract out-of-state candidates—but you also need to pitch the promise of a new city. And you have to work hand-in-hand with local government and schools to attract, develop and retain top talent, because no entity can do this alone.


How Targeted Recruitment Marketing Can Make a Difference

As Detroit’s elimination suggests, cities and states will also increasingly need to start adopting recruitment marketing. This means the proactive, future-driven, brand-fueled marketing of a mission, a purpose. It’s about marketing a city, a company, and growth…not just jobs. It’s also about deeply understanding your talent—who they are, what they want, and where they are. It’s recruitment marketing, but fundamentally, being strategic and intelligent and predictive about where your best talent comes from.

Detroit’s Amazon outcome may have been very different if Detroit (and Michigan generally) had started thinking about proactively marketing to niche tech talent years ago. Recruitment marketing isn’t just about building a generic “brand” as some sort of innovation hub; it’s about getting really targeted about the types of talent you want to recruit and tying a strategy to it. 

If you want to be a city that can attract the Amazons and Googles of the world, it’s important to have a clear understanding of the kind of workers they want—and how you will attract them. Highly educated 25-34 year olds is the sweet spot for tech—the average age of an Amazon employee is 31. Yet Detroit only grew its percentage of 25-34 year olds with a college degree by 5 percent between 2000 and 2016. Meanwhile, one city that did make the Final 20—Pittsburgh—grew that target demographic by 52 percent during that same period. Three of the top four Midwestern cities on this metric—Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Columbus—can also be found on Amazon’s shortlist.

So while Michigan’s economic recovery may mean their overall brain drain is a thing of the past, they didn’t have the right talent to attract Amazon. Cities, just like employers, should forget about the War for Talent and instead focus on the Fight for Fit.


Cities Doing It Right

Cities and employers need to adopt—and act upon—a “build it (and continue to market it) and they will come” mindset to ensure a healthy talent pipeline. But how?

Here are a few examples of how other cities are proactively using recruitment marketing tactics to lure top talent:



As part of Houston’s “City With No Limits” campaign aimed at attracting young professionals to the city, they created a Recruiter Tool Kit that houses relevant content recruiters can send to  prospective employees considering a relocation to Houston.

As further proof of their commitment to building their talent pipeline, the Greater Houston Partnership even created a new role in 2015: Director of Talent Attraction and Marketing. And their approach is working: Harris County, home to Houston, is rated third in the U.S. for its ability to attract and retain talent.



Boston is a big biotech and cybersecurity hub, but it suffers from an undersupply of talent in those two areas. So, the city itself has started to help by publishing content like this aimed at cultivating talent within the city and making Boston look attractive to out-of-state cybersecurity talent.



Pittsburgh, like Detroit, suffers from lingering perceptions of its Rust Belt past—yet it’s still in the running as one of the 20 finalists for Amazon’s HQ2. How did they manage to rise above? The city’s “Imagine Pittsburgh” campaign involved a major, targeted three-phase initiative designed to nurture and attract talent—and clearly it’s been successful.

Pittsburgh’s efforts also illustrate that it’s important to go to where specific talent you’re trying to reach is. In an effort to attract IT talent from Silicon Valley to Pittsburgh, the city held a reception at the San Francisco Cartoon Art Museum. Positioning Pittsburgh as the “East Coast IT outpost,” this event was aimed at spreading the message that life in Pittsburgh is not so different from San Francisco.


A Final Thought

Of course, there are many factors that go into a decision like Amazon’s HQ2—from tax incentives to mass transit to a city’s overall business climate. But a sufficient talent pipeline is a critical and increasingly important factor, especially when such a large business investment hinges on having the right talent that can drive the innovation Amazon is known for. HQ2 is a big bet for Amazon—with 50,000 employees and a $5 billion investment on the line—and they need a city with a proven, long-term track record of being able to attract and retain talent.

What can we learn from Detroit’s loss? Any entity trying to attract talent—be it a city or a business —can’t do it reactively and can’t wait for talent to come to them. Because by the time it matters, it’ll be too late.

Looks like Louisville’s mayor was right when he proclaimed, the jobs follow the people.”

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