Nov 13, 2018

Axios Future

Steve LeVine

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1 big thing: Amazon's new quest

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Amazon has pulled off one of the most successful public relations coups in memory, creating more than a year of wild public suspense and — among cities — deep longing to host its next headquarters.

  • But now comes the hard part: finding 50,000 engineers, computer scientists and other skilled workers to staff complexes in two of the largest cities in the U.S. amid the tightest job market in five decades.
  • There are already more than 1 million unfilled jobs in the U.S., according to figures for September, released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 34,000 of them were in the information industry, which includes tech jobs.
  • Earlier this month, the WSJ reported that China's Foxconn, the supplier for Apple, is considering shipping in engineers from China because of the difficulty finding talent in the U.S.

The bottom line: In its announcement today, Amazon said that attracting tech talent was a primary reason for selecting Long Island City and northern Virginia. But very few tech grads or workers anywhere in the country appear to be begging for work.

"If your background is data analysis, you are going to get a job right out of school, and you're probably going to do something better than Amazon."
— Joel Kotkin, a professor at Chapman University
  • This lack of idle talent stretches across the industry, including into management. I asked Tim Derdenger, a professor at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business, whether many of the school's graduates are hard-pressed to find work. "Probably not," he said.
  • Among last year's graduates, one-third were hired by the tech industry — led by Amazon, according to Stephen Rakas, who runs the business school’s career center.

The critical U.S. shortage of skilled workers appears to be the leading driver for Amazon's decision, says Michael Farren, a fellow at the Mercatus Center, a think tank at George Mason University. Ultimately, Amazon spurned larger, more lavish subsidies offered by other cities.

  • Farren tells Axios that, for secondary U.S. cities to compete for jobs, they should invest in infrastructure with broad advantage — like strong education — rather than aim at a specific company. (In a new report, Farren and co-author Anne Philpot argue that most lavish subsidies are money thrown away.)

In fact, a principal part of Virginia's bid was a promise to invest $1 billion in pumping out thousands of added engineering and tech graduates.

  • The money will go to build a new Virginia Tech “Innovation Campus” near Amazon’s offices. The campus will produce 750 engineering master's degree graduates a year, plus 125 Ph.D.s. Virginia Tech will also graduate an additional 2,000 engineering undergrads.
  • But, but, but: Even absent Amazon, there is sufficient jobs demand to absorb all the added Virginia Tech engineering grads, says Tim Sands, president of the college.
  • Sands tells Axios that the school already had expansion plans, which were accelerated to win the competition for Amazon.

What's next: Amazon will scour the schools and attempt to poach from other companies. Kurt Heikkinen, CEO of Montage, a tech recruitment firm, said that the company will have to be flexible as to the credentials of candidates.

  • It will have to ignore whether a candidate has a specific college degree or a certain number of years of experience and instead focus on aptitude.
  • "I also suspect that not 100% of the hires will be located" in the headquarters, he said. Amazon, he said, will probably permit some of the more specialized hires to work virtually from wherever they live.

Go deeper: Big Tech riles academia in battle for AI talent

2. The upside of misery reduction

Daniel Kahneman. Photo: Craig Barritt/Getty/The New Yorker

Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate in economics and renowned psychologist, is known for creating a safe place for the study of happiness. But last evening, over dinner with a small group at George Mason University, Kahneman said happiness isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Instead of happiness, Kahneman said, people would be better off to focus on the reduction of misery. In fact, the world would be better as well, he said.

Kahneman, along with his academic partner Amos Tversky, pioneered the field of behavioral economics. Amos wrote the best-selling "Thinking, Fast and Slow."

Go deeper: Why Daniel Kahneman gave up on happiness

3. Veterans teaching machines

Photo: Glenn Koenig/Los Angeles Times/Getty

For a month, two disabled veterans in Texas labeled photos taken by drones, drawing lines around objects and identifying them. Their work will be used to train artificial intelligence systems.

Axios’ Kaveh Waddell writes: Physical disabilities or a mental health condition like PTSD can make it difficult for a veteran to work in a traditional office or work site. But data labeling can be done on a computer from home.

What's happening: A software company, a defense contractor and two nonprofits are behind a project to provide AI training work for veterans.

  • Working hours are flexible, which benefits veterans whose disability status prevents them from working full time, says Lindsay Box, executive director of IAM23, a veterans’ services organization.
  • "It gives them a sense of meaning," says Box. "It gives them something to wake up for in the morning."

The drone-image project is for a large defense contractor. Machine vision systems need a lot of annotated data in order to learn to automatically identify objects.

  • Nathaniel Gates, CEO of Alegion — the company that created the software the veterans used — wouldn’t say which contractor was involved.
  • DEWIT, an Austin nonprofit that helped arrange the pilot program, hopes to sign on more than a dozen veterans for a second project.
4. Worthy of your time

Photo: Du Yang/China News Service/VCG/Getty

Inside the new industrial revolution (Christopher Mims — WSJ)

Japanese fear robots (Dave Lawler — Axios)

In 1914, they also thought they were in times of peace (Hal Brands — Bloomberg)

The massive, decades-long project to spread information havoc (Adam Ellick, Adam Westbrook — NYT) (video)

How Big Tech spent its tax break (Richard Waters, Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson — FT)

5. 1 sizzling thing: Bringing the bacon

Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty

Chicken is out; pork is in. President Trump’s tariffs are inflating poultry prices while making it cheaper to bring home the bacon.

The trade war has reduced pork exports to China and Mexico, Reuters reports, increasing supply in the U.S.

Kaveh writes: In response, grocery stores and restaurants are pushing pork. Wendy’s is selling a burger topped with three strips of bacon, and the Food Lion grocery chain has special deals on pork.

  • Meanwhile, chicken farms are suffering. Poultry giant Tyson Foods missed Wall Street earnings estimates on Tuesday, as its operating income from chicken fell nearly 34%, reports Reuters' Tom Polansek.
  • “With all that pork on the market, it has spilled over to affecting consumers’ demand for chicken," Bill Roenigk, an agricultural economist and consultant for the National Chicken Council, told Polansek.

The big picture: A volley of tariffs between the U.S. and China have knocked U.S. farmers off-kilter, dealing sharp blows to soybean and corn producers.

What’s next: A new trade agreement between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada could restore pork exports to Mexico and put chicken back on the table.

Steve LeVine