When Amazon launched the competition for its second headquarters location, among the many stated criteria for its decision, proximity to talent stood out. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Irrespective of what type of business an organization is in, the 21st-century economy — and the advanced technology needed to support it — requires a highly educated workforce.
Philadelphia’s story — put together by an outstanding partnership between the city Commerce Department and PIDC, the city’s economic development corporation, and the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia – was strong enough to get us to a short list of 20 cities, culled from an original list of over 200 cities that made proposals.
We had a great location on the East Coast, a vibrant metropolitan transit network, proximity to a major airport, several sites ready to be developed, and, yes, an abundance of well-educated talent living close to our proposed sites.
But a closer examination of national data reveals where we fell short. After Seattle, the city with the highest percentage of residents who hold a bachelor’s degree is Washington. If a city has a well-connected transit system, the standing of the metropolitan area is even more significant. Where does the Washington metro area rank? First in the nation. Which city and region have the highest percentage of advanced degrees in the nation? Washington. New York is not too far behind in these rankings. But with a population that is many times larger than any other city or metropolitan area, the sheer number of people in New York with the educational level that Amazon wants is very high.
Philadelphia generally ranks in the middle of the pack of important American cities. As a city, we rank 39th in percentage of our citizens with a bachelor’s degree, 24th with an advanced degree. Our metropolitan rankings are 17th and 10th, respectively.
We have an extraordinary assemblage of colleges and universities in the city and the region. In the past decade, we have significantly increased the percentage of our graduates who stay here. But despite these great advantages, our underlying educational foundation needs improvement for us to remain competitive, grow our economy, and provide decent jobs at all levels of educational attainment.
This means that we must focus our attention on the quality of our elementary and high schools and ensure that our students are graduating with the essential cognitive and technical skills that will allow them to carry on productive lives. Leaving large segments of our children unprepared is morally wrong and contrary to our own self-interest.
At the higher level of education, our city and region have made great strides in establishing Philadelphia as a center for life sciences and bio-engineering. We see this in the proliferation of research and clinical practice at our extraordinary medical institutions. We also see it in the creation of businesses devoted to immunotherapies, making progress to cure diseases previously thought to be incurable.
But as the Amazon experience shows us, we will also need to become more well-known in engineering, computer science, data science, logistics, and business management, among others. We have these resources here in Philadelphia, but the world is also demanding that they be fully integrated with greater levels of community engagement, empathy, and “design thinking,” the skills that come from our equally strong base in the social sciences, humanities, and arts. The ingredients are all here. But as any good cook knows, a great meal comes from how you put them together.
At Drexel, our founder, Anthony Joseph Drexel, understood that the world of the late 19th century was radically changing due to advances in industry and technology. He established an institution predicated on the integration of arts, industry, and science that would lift the lives of an urban workforce. We see the same radical changes occurring today, some 125 years later. It is a clarion call to respond again to the needs of our citizens in service to our community.
I come out of this experience with Amazon with enormous appreciation for the inherent resources of our region and for the leadership team that got us so far along in the process. This was a great learning experience for us all, one that will enable us to further dedicate ourselves to becoming a leading city of the 21st century.