From direct flights to diversity, why Amazon may have passed on Pittsburgh
Amazon passed over Pittsburgh as home for its second headquarters.
City and Allegheny County officials said Tuesday that they haven’t talked with Amazon representatives about the company’s reasoning.
But people who have been watching the Amazon situation closely speculated that the company might have been concerned about getting to, from and around Pittsburgh; its labor force; and the region not being innovative enough.
Getting from one place to another in Pittsburgh can be a challenge, several people told the Tribune-Review.
“If you and I want to leave Squirrel Hill and go to the North Side, and we don’t want to take an Uber, it’s a complicated thing,” said Audrey Russo, head of the Pittsburgh Technology Council. “And it’s only six miles away.”
Expansive bus, train and subway systems serve New York, Washington and its suburbs. The arrival and departure boards at JFK, LaGuardia, Reagan and Dulles airports are filled with direct flights.
“We don’t have that,” Russo said.
The labor market
Pittsburgh’s labor market doesn’t come close to competing with what is available around New York and Washington, said John Boyd, a principal consultant at The Boyd Co., a location consulting firm in Princeton, N.J.
“It’s the sheer size, and it’s the broad spectrum of industries that have a presence in those areas,” Boyd said of the labor markets in Amazon’s HQ2 cities. “It’s unmatched and unrivaled.”
Boyd said Washington has become a center for health care and the military and the highly skilled work force that comes with those fields. New York has long been a center of banking and finance.
“I think talent was at the center of their attention,” said Luke Skurman, CEO of Niche.com, a Pittsburgh data company that gathers information on nearly every school, college, university, neighborhood, town and suburb in the country.
“We have an emerging economy. We have a lot of smart people. We have a talented workforce, but I don’t think it would have been easy for Amazon to go out and hire the people they were looking for,” Skurman said.
Not a major metro
Pittsburgh is a lot of things, but a major metropolitan area is not one of them. New York and Washington have a multicultural mosaic of people, said Bopaya Bidanda, chair of University of Pittsburgh’s industrial engineering program.
“It’s diversity of thought, diversity of skills, diversity of perspectives,” Bidanda said. “Pittsburgh has come a long way in the last 15 years, but we’re nowhere near the competition.”
Two-thirds of Pittsburgh’s metro population identifies as white, while 44 percent of people in the New York metro area and 38.5 percent of people in the Washington metro area do, according to the U.S. Census. About 8 percent of Pittsburgh’s population was born abroad. Immigrants make up more than 37 percent of New York’s population and more than 14 percent of Washington’s population, according to the census.
Bidanda said Amazon was clearly looking for that sort of environment with its selections.
“But I’ll take Pittsburgh as it is any day,” Bidanda said.
Looking forward, not backward
There’s a lot of talk in Pittsburgh about its innovation, from self-driving cars to a top-rated university for artificial intelligence. But Josh Knauer, a tech entrepreneur and investor in Pittsburgh, said the region isn’t as forward-thinking as it should be to land a company like Amazon.
He pointed toward the excitement over the cracker plant coming to Beaver County as proof too many in region are stuck in the past.
“There’s just too much pining for the old days in Pittsburgh,” said Knauer, who founded Rhiza, a media and consumer analytics company that was acquired by Nielsen. “That is not forward thinking, and I feel like those other regions are on a forward-thinking tilt, and it’s clear that Amazon was looking for that.”
Knauer said there is a lot of innovation happening in Pittsburgh but it hasn’t consumed the entire region. The region needs a plan to make innovation a part of its fabric, Knauer said.
“And we’re not there yet in Pittsburgh,” Knauer said. “And we need to be.”
Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Aaron at 412-336-8448, [email protected] or via Twitter @tinynotebook.