Scott Ball / Rivard Report
I want San Antonio to compete at its best to win the new Amazon headquarters, but if we somehow pull off a miracle and win the lottery, don’t ask me to work there.
I regularly shop on Amazon, yet would not want to be one of those 50,000 employees the company is talking about hiring in a new headquarters city. I like the way the company performs for consumers, but don’t ask me to become one of the company’s stressed out, high-octane performers. No matter, really – There are plenty of other people who will line up for jobs there.
I share the observation after distilling reader reaction to my column last week, Why San Antonio Should Pursue the Amazon HQ2 Deal. Some readers joined in the chorus, supporting San Antonio’s economic development leaders as they prepare to compete with cities like Denver, Dallas, Charlotte, and Raleigh, N.C. Others said no thanks, and were highly critical of a company that pushes its employees so hard and fast to make the impossible, well, possible.
Both arguments have merit. Add in one other complexity: While I welcome Amazon’s innovation in same-day delivery service and am watching with interest the company’s recent acquisition of Whole Foods, I would hate to see it win market share from H-E-B, which employs far more than 50,000 people in Texas and gives back to San Antonio and the many other communities it serves in an unmatched way.
So, let’s agree it’s complicated and get busy with our best offer, which will serve as an important measure of how we stack up against other leading U.S. cities. Our shortcomings are well-known, and our elected leaders can take the opportunity to rally voters and get them to support the kind of public investments that will address our substandard mass transit system. Our low number of nonstop flights remains another thorny challenge.
We have many attributes. We can offer a competitive incentive package with help from the State. We can offer abundant, affordable land, and well-aligned, welcoming business and civic leaders. San Antonio has become a draw for young, talented professionals, so Amazon should have no problem attracting people to move here to supplement interested locals. No affordable city has 50,000 available skilled workers.
Amazon can play a major leadership role in accelerating San Antonio’s transformation, catalyzing support for a city with more equitable work and living conditions.
Paul and Eric Bell, a father-son pair of entrepreneurs in our city, argue that San Antonio and Austin should band together to present themselves as a super-metro, one city’s strengths making up for the other’s weaknesses. The Bells are not naive, and a recent New York Times story documenting the bruising Amazon workplace culture underscores that view. But they also understand the enormous economic implications.
The Bells understand why the arrival of the company to the San Antonio-Austin corridor arguably would be the biggest economic development story in our history.
Some critics claim Amazon will pay minimum wages here, which is contradicted by all evidence. I think back to a visit I made to the company’s massive distribution center in Schertz in April 2015 when Gov. Greg Abbott led other state and local officials on a tour. I wandered off unescorted to watch workers packaging orders for mail delivery.
I struck up a conversation with one woman performing the repetitive task of matching items to packaging options and then affixing mailing labels before sending the items down the line for whatever came next. She barely made it out of high school, she told me, and regretted not being a better student. She and her younger sister both were working as housekeepers for a chain hotel located on San Antonio’s River Walk when Amazon arrived in Schertz and began hiring.
Both were making around $9 an hour and were subject to shifting work hours, depending on the ebb and flow of conventions and hotel occupancy. She was earning around $15 an hour in her new job at Amazon and enjoying better health care benefits, she told me. Her sister was still trying to win a job at Amazon, still cleaning hotel rooms for a much lower hourly wage.
There is nothing particularly inspiring about a job where all the work is repetitive, whether it is making hotel beds or filling boxes, but many workers have little choice without the education and skills to compete for higher paying opportunities.
Amazon, at least, has elevated hourly wages and benefits for hundreds of workers in this market. A headquarters would bring thousands of white-collar professional positions, while the fulfillment jobs would offer hourly wage-earners better pay and greater opportunity.
Over the years I have heard people describe Bill Gates and Microsoft as evil, Steve Jobs and Apple as evil, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook as evil, and yes, Jeff Bezos and Amazon as evil.
I look at the same individuals and the innovative companies they built as world-changing entrepreneurs. A city like San Antonio would be short-changing its future to not compete for Amazon’s next big headquarters, even if you, me, and many others won’t be applying for a job there.