Amazon-HQ2

An Amazon employee gave her pet a biscuit as the pair headed into a company building in Seattle. Dogs are welcome at the company.

Groundbreaking jobs projects bring tremendous potential. As Virginia inches toward the arrival of Amazon HQ2, the commonwealth and the Richmond region already have a good foundation to lean on.

A new report by Garner Economics provides a 5-year snapshot of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and its Quarterly Census of Employment & Wages (QCEW). The dataset is a count of jobs reported by employers and, from 2013 to 2018, Virginia added just over 250,000 net positions (+6.9%).

But the report cautions this is “just one indicator of economic wellbeing.” The BLS QCEW data has notable exclusions, including self-employed people, most agricultural workers on small farms, and members of the armed forces. Employment also can be cyclical, and “economic development always occurs on the local level.”

For communities across Virginia and the nation, the goal is to experience quantity and quality. But the process can be unpredictable. Take Storey County, Nev.: population 4,029 in 2018. Behind its growth story (+342%) is the 2014 arrival of the Tesla Gigafactory 1. The heralded manufacturing facility produces battery packs, electric motors and energy storage products for the flashy lineup of cars.

A July analysis by the Reno Gazette-Journal noted mixed results. The project was expected to create 6,500 jobs from 2015 to 2018. An audit by Nevada officials found only 4,247 jobs produced so far. But wages were far higher than the $26-per-hour average originally agreed to in the deal.

“The one thing that we hope is constant … is that each of these counties and parishes have economic development leadership focused on moving the needle forward,” the Garner Economics report adds.

So what does the needle look like in the Richmond region? From 2013 to 2018, our metro area added a net 42,000 jobs — Chesterfield County (+15,990, 13.1%), Hanover County (+5,888, 12.6%), Henrico County (+12,312, 6.9%) and the city of Richmond (+8,015, 5.4%).

Despite their shared growth and proximity, each area has its own vision of quantity and quality. In 2018, Henrico had 191,739 jobs — second in Virginia only to Fairfax County (612,449). They’re filled by longstanding companies like Markel in Glen Allen, and newer endeavors such as the Facebook data center at White Oak Technology Park in Sandston.

County Manager John Vithoulkas said about 90,000 of the jobs are held by Henrico residents. But the other 100,000 or so employees commute into the county.

“Because we have jobs that range from A to Z, we’re employing a lot of our residents, but also the region’s residents,” Vithoulkas told The Times-Dispatch.

In Hanover, director of economic development E. Linwood Thomas IV encounters companies that invest based on three factors: strategic location, the cost to do business and workforce availability.

When considering possible incentives in return, Thomas and his team look at the quality of the positions. They strive for jobs in, say, warehousing that are paying $22 an hour, not $12 an hour.

“No two jobs are created the same,” Thomas said. “We want to make sure that, as we’re looking to add jobs, we’re adding good jobs.”

In Chesterfield, officials said the vision is to “raise all boats,” whether a job is at McDonald’s or Amazon. About 13,000 of the 15,990 net jobs added over the past five years were concentrated in construction, health care, transportation/warehousing and business services. Those tend to be high-paying sectors.

“Not only do we have the quantity, but we have the quality where those increases have occurred, in sectors we’re very glad to have,” said Matt Harris, deputy county administrator for finance and administration.

Like Tesla in Nevada, Amazon in Virginia has the potential to generate record-setting figures. Think of construction jobs to build new facilities or the jobs directly with Amazon, which could pay an average salary of $150,000 per year.

But not every HQ2 employee will be in Crystal City. Higher education institutions, from the College of William & Mary to universities such as Virginia Commonwealth and Virginia State, stand to benefit as well.

New work preferences are also already taking shape. Chesterfield County Administrator Joseph P. Casey pointed to the arrival of 2,000 startups over the past five years. Counts on the emerging remote workforce are also still raw.

“Chesterfield’s a lovely place to live, and people are working out of their house[s],” added Garrett Hart, the county’s director of economic development.

Blue-collar jobs might still be housed in manufacturing plants. The same goes for white-collar jobs in massive office buildings. But co-working spaces and living rooms are just as ripe. Under the hood of any jobs report, local government still has a major hand in decisions that bring quantity and quality.

Chris Gentilviso

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