BOSTON – Amazon isn’t just a Seattle company anymore, and a visit to its offices in this university city explains why.
Here, in an old Necco wafer candy factory in the formerly industrial neighborhood of Fort Point, Rohit Prasad oversees 1,200 workers developing Alexa, the company’s digital assistant. Walls made out of shipping containers, a playful nod to Amazon’s main business, and exposed brick echo the urban tech vibe of its Seattle headquarters. Teams of scientists and engineers work on the speech recognition and artificial intelligence that allows customers to interact with Alexa.
Amazon’s Boston hub is growing — executives predict its tech and managerial workers will increase to at least 3,200 in the next five years. Most of those tech jobs pay more than $100,000, according to Glassdoor.com. And Boston is far from the only city where Amazon’s footprint has quietly expanded.
More than a quarter of Amazon’s U.S. tech and managerial workers are not based in Seattle. The company has 17 North American tech hubs with a total staff count of at least 17,500, a reflection of the tech expertise that’s grown up in specific areas and the reality that not everyone wants or can live in Seattle. Amazon’s New York offices focus on fashion and publishing, for instance, while its Los Angeles hub concentrates on video and gaming.
There’s one reason for all this decentralization – Amazon is engaged in a knock-down, drag-out fight for tech talent.
“In this day and age, you can’t be stuck in one city,” said Prasad, Amazon’s head scientist for the Alexa team, which extends to Seattle, Pittsburgh, Gdansk, Poland, and the San Francisco Bay Area. “I can’t hire enough engineers in my area to do the heavy lifting. We have to go where the talent is.”
This dispersed growth could soften the blow for the 19 cities that stand to lose their bid for Amazon’s much-heralded second headquarters. Dubbed HQ2, the promised50,000 high-tech jobs and $5 billion investment set off a fierce competition between Boston, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and more than 200 other cities. Amazon has narrowed the potential winners to 20 and is expected to announce the finalist later this year.
Yet the e-retailer’s hiring binge over the last few years shows that even those cities that lose the bid for the second headquarters could keep reeling in these high-paid tech jobs. And they could do so without offering controversial tax breaks.
“Amazon is smart to say that not everyone needs to live in Seattle or New York or Boston,” said Joseph Parilla, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.
The decentralization of Amazon’s high-tech workforce is happening across tech, at companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook — but it’s particularly pronounced at Amazon.
Upwards of 28 percent of Amazon’s corporate staff in North America work hundreds and often thousands of miles from its soggy Seattle home. And it’s not confined to the United States and Canada. Amazon has 16 smaller tech hubs across Europe, as well as one in Israel, another in Johannesburg, four in India, one in Japan and one in China.