Tech talent key to Ottawa's Amazon bid, former exec says

Cities looking to convince Amazon to choose them for its second North American headquarters need to focus on one thing, according to a former executive: feeding the online retail giant the best tech talent available.

Critics call mayor's trip to company's Seattle campus 'grandstanding'

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson will take a tour of Amazon's Seattle headquarters on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. (Reuters)

Cities looking to convince Amazon to choose them for its second North American headquarters need to focus on one thing: feeding the online retail giant the best tech talent available. 

The advice, from former Amazon employee and Canadian expat James Thomson, comes as the Seattle-based company embarks on a well-publicized scouting mission for another city to host what the company calls "HQ2."

Amazon has announced it plans to invest $5 billion US to develop the new site, which will house as many as 50,000 workers. Cities across North America, including Ottawa, leapt at the chance to compete for the coveted opportunity.

Thomson, the former head of Amazon Services and co-author of The Amazon Marketplace Dilemma, told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Tuesday that the winning bidder will be the city that can offer a "clear path to tech employees." 

An Amazon 'fulfilment centre' in England. (Phil Noble/Reuters)

Visa issue could give Canadian bidders leg up

Thomson said there's currently a shortage of computer engineering graduates in the U.S., so Amazon could be looking beyond the border.

"With the current political climate in the U.S. it's difficult to know just how many visas you have to recruit folks from outside the United States," he said. 

"One of the unusual aspects of a Canadian city being able to submit a strong bid is the fact that they don't have to deal with American visas. Certainly the Canadian immigration program is a little bit more welcoming than the U.S. program."

With Ottawa's history as a high-tech hub, the capital has a pool of talent already in place, Thomson said.

Amazon under fire

Amazon has come under fire in recent years for how it treats its employees, some of whom have claimed they work in crushing conditions and have had their health concerns ignored. Amazon has denied those allegations.

Thomson said good corporate citizenship is "not part of Amazon's DNA."

"The underlying way that Amazon thinks about the whole process of being in business is finding ways to cut costs and pass those savings on to customers. It's not up to Amazon to figure out how to donate to local charities and so on."

On the other hand, the company has brought dramatic change to Seattle over the last decade, Thomson said. 

Rates for residential real estate in that city have doubled, while commercial real estate has tripled, said Thomson, who has lived in Seattle for 10 years. 

"In the last year in Seattle there have been more cranes building buildings than any other city in the U.S. You have an unusual situation where all these folks coming to Seattle, they're being paid very well. They all want nice places to live, they want nice restaurants, they want culture, they want access to good things from the city," he said. 

Mayor accused of 'grandstanding'

The day after Amazon announced its search, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson announced he's striking a task force with an eye to putting together a winning bid.

Watson will also tour Amazon's headquarters in Seattle Thursday to try to get a sense of what a campus in Ottawa might look like. Critics are calling the trip a publicity stunt. 

But Mike Patton, an Ottawa communications strategist who worked for former mayor Larry O'Brien, said on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning the trip is merely a "grandstanding" opportunity for the mayor.

If Donald Trump has his way, there's no way those jobs are leaving the United States.- Mike Patton

"He's showing up at Amazon's door uninvited without any sort of plan on how they're going to proceed," Patton said.

Tyler Chamberlin agreed. The associate professor at the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management said he didn't think the U.S. trip was the most effective use of taxpayer dollars. 

"I just don't think we realistically have a chance of securing these jobs, and it may have been refreshing to see a little more honesty in that sort of situation," Chamberlin said. 

While the mayor admits Ottawa has a long road ahead to elbow out the competition, critics said he should be more realistic in his ambition. 

"If Donald Trump has his way, there's no way those jobs are leaving the United States," Patton argued. "It's not that Ottawa sucks — we're fantastic. We just may not be the best fit, and making a big deal about it is probably a mistake."

With files from CBC Radio