How to reverse Illinois’ exodus and improve minority unemployment

Amazon announced Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018, that it has narrowed its hunt for a second headquarters to 20 locations, concentrated among cities in the U.S. East and Midwest. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

It’s great news that Chicago made the shortlist for Amazon’s HQ2. But that list is actually a long one in my playbook, and I pray that Chicago wins the retail giant’s second headquarters. The promise of a $5 billion investment and 50,000 jobs is an opportunity all Chicagoans should covet and go all-out to secure. Here are 10 reasons why.

1. It will improve minority employment in Chicago. Even though the Chicago metropolitan area’s unemployment rate is 4.8 percent, the lowest in a decade, Illinois had the nation’s highest minority unemployment rate in 2016 — 12.7 percent. The sheer size of the project will help turn this situation around.

2. Last week, the Obama Presidential Center established a visionary model for economic development and minority employment in Chicago by hiring a collective of five mostly African-American construction firms. Amazon has the chance to be equally visionary, or even exceed those goals. Our voices helped shape the center’s employment model, and gives Chicago’s minorities a chance to work toward a repeat.

3. Jobs in the construction industry pay really well, and Amazon will need hundreds, if not thousands, of workers for the project. The average salary for entry-level construction equipment operators is $43,810, and only requires on-the-job training or vocational school. Construction professionals do much better than that; many earn salaries in the top six figures.

4. It will be a game changer. The overall economic impact of locating Amazon’s HQ2 in Chicago is unprecedented. A recent World Business Chicago study noted it would generate $7.4 billion in construction-related spending, and $341 billion in total spending for operations over the next 17 years — including an estimated $71 billion in salaries — and add an additional 37,500 jobs annually.

5. Jobs beget more jobs. The Amazon model is proven to benefit communities. Look at Seattle, a major metropolitan area with one of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates thanks, in large part, to Amazon. When unemployment rates are low, the impact is felt communitywide. It drives demand and causes wages to rise, and this would be a welcome development in Chicago.

6. Living expenses spread the wealth. Those 50,000 Amazon employees will pay taxes, own or rent homes, send their children to schools and pay for electricity, gas, water, phones, internet, food, clothing, entertainment, transportation and more.

7. Chicago was willing to go all-out for the Olympics in 2015 with a low-ball bid of $4.8 billion, and in this case the benefits could far surpass that kind of risk to the taxpaying public. Unlike the Olympics, this is a permanent project with no end date in site but rather the potential to grow exponentially.

8. The $300 million construction contract and $3.1 billion economic impact for Cook County generated by the Obama Presidential Center are a fraction of the benefits Amazon will generate if it locates here. And for our $2 billion in incentives, Amazon pays construction costs, creates jobs and much more.

9. Not only will Amazon utilize our human capital, it will become a partner in demanding the city invest in the resources needed to ensure that workers are adequately trained to take these jobs. Well-educated people get jobs, and employed people spur economic and community development.

10. The U.S. Minority Contractors Association strongly supports science, technology, engineering and math — aka STEM — skills through our nonprofit foundation efforts. Collaboration with Amazon beyond the construction and operations stage will ensure an even brighter future for minority students.

The facts say it all. We should keep a full court press to bring Amazon to Chicago. The Obama Presidential Center is a start, but Amazon’s HQ2 promises to be a far more transformative project, with great potential to make life better for all Chicagoland residents.