Is Amazon’s HQ2 opportunity or obstacle for the federal workforce?

Amazon announced Nov. 13 that it would be spreading its much-anticipated second headquarters across two cities — Arlington, Virginia, and Long Island City, New York — creating over 50,000 jobs across both locations.

But for the federal government, which has large personnel presences in both New York City and Arlington-adjacent Washington, D.C., the announcement could prove both boon and bane for agencies already struggling to fill out their IT and cyber workforces, according to industry experts.

“I’d start off with what we know about federal IT talent,” said Mallory Bulman, the Partnership for Public Service’s vice president of research and development.

“We know that there aren’t many. As of our last count — which was March 2018 — IT employees made up just over four percent of the full-time civilian workforce. The ones that are there aren’t young, only 2.5 percent of full-time IT employees were under the age of 30, and there were over five times as many IT employees over the age of 60 as under the age of 30. And they don’t stay, so 30.5 percent of federal employees that quit federal service last year did so with less than two years of service.”

All of these statistics have left federal agencies that are strapped for IT talent and a likelihood that the talent they do have will retire in the near future.

“It’s certainly conventional wisdom that Amazon is going to come in and they’re going to draw all of the great talent. I think there might be a couple of other aspects to this, though, that we might consider,” said National Academy of Public Administration President and CEO Terry Gerton.

The first of those considerations is that not every federal agency is located in the Washington area, meaning that the draw from Amazon will not greatly impact other federal offices spread across the country. And not every employee at the new HQ2 will be an IT professional.

But according to Bulman, when it comes to Washington-area IT talent, this may not be an either/or situation.

“A lot of times we tend to look at issues as being addressed by the public sector or the private sector and I think, as I look at government, there are oversimplifications,” said Bulman.

“Amazon’s move of HQ2 to the area I think creates a greater opportunity for collaboration between the sectors, and also an opportunity for talent to move inside and outside of the federal space.”

Newer government organizations, like the U.S. Digital Service have pioneered methods of quickly bringing IT talent into the government for short stints of work that improve government services and expand the capabilities of the employees themselves.

“A lot of agencies currently do have a range of hiring authorities to be able to bring in tech talent,” said Bulman.

Most recently, the Office of Personnel Management expanded flexibility for agency leadership to bring on and classify IT and cyber talent.

According to Gerton, the presence of Amazon may ultimately start a cycle of top tech talent moving into the Washington area by boosting the economics of the region.

“That increased economic activity may drive additional talent,” said Gerton. “It could be actually a very nice reciprocal relationship: Amazon drives increased economic activity, that draws more people to Northern Virginia or Maryland, and that in turn increases the talent pool available for defense contractors and government work."

Competition could also spur the government to address some of its long-standing workforce challenges that are in the way of bringing on IT and cyber talent, such as outdated job classification systems, lengthy hiring times and job requirements that make it difficult to move in and out of government work.

Rather than worrying over how Amazon’s presence might change the available workforce, Gerton said, agencies should use the time between the announcement and Amazon starting up operations in the area to start changing things that need to be changed.

Impacts to other local systems, like transit and the housing market, may also prompt agencies to consider telework options and other flexibilities for employees.

“It might provoke some conversation around pay comparability. Every HR issue that you can think of, it’s going to make resolution of them that much more urgent. And from my perspective that might be a good thing,” said Gertion.

“We want to be careful and not jump to conclusions until we know the particulars.”

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