If there’s one word beyond all the sloganeering that defined the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s annual meeting Thursday, it might be “mirror.”
Representatives of a range of companies, from BlackRock to Pandora, intimated on stage that they located in Atlanta partly because it’s an emerging tech hub, but mostly because they could see their culture and their growth ethic reflected here.
Atlanta plans to showcase that culture to the world, both digitally and in person, when Super Bowl LII comes to town in February, boosters said during a luncheon meeting at the newly renovated State Farm Arena featuring pyrotechnics and cheers for the metro area’s explosive growth.
“Our intention is to be a globally competitive top-tier market,” said Hala Moddelmog, the chamber’s president, no longer content with city simply being known as the economic center of the Southeast.
But not everyone locally is benefiting from Atlanta’s rise, and developing local employees is key if a city that with one of the greatest wealth gaps in the country wants to achieve more equitable growth.
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms alluded to this challenge in her remarks, noting that this week she announced that companies like Delta and Home Depot to IntercontinentalExchange have put a collective $2 million toward a Center for Workforce Innovation that is set to train promising low-income youths in high-demand skills. Born out of McKinsey & Co. research, the program is to be housed at the Atlanta Technical College and will host its first cohort in 2019.
“To be truly one Atlanta, it certainly takes a village, and I’m very happy to say that you all are a part of our village,” Ms. Bottoms told about 2,000 business leaders eating lunch where the Atlanta Hawks play basketball.
This initiative is one of many aimed at boosting local skill sets in areas like west and south Atlanta, from Learn4Life and the Westside Works program around Mercedes-Benz Stadium to the 100,000 Opportunities initiative, a national program featuring major brands that targets young people who are neither in school nor working. The Aerotropolis Atlanta Alliance has airport-area workforce training programs. Metro-area technical colleges have created curriculum to feed jobs in the film industry, while four-year schools have launched a fintech curriculum to supply trained workers to the fast-growing payments sector.
Atlanta’s future is only as bright as the talent the city is developing, said United Parcel Service Inc. CEO David Abney, the inbound chair of the chamber starting in 2019.
“We have a thriving talent pipeline, and it’s exciting to know that the world sees it, but to keep it thriving we have to fuel it,” he said.
That’s true at all levels of the value chain. The chamber’s ChooseATL campaign has continued to tell Atlanta’s story to prospective high-tech workers and other highly educated millennials, but it also realizes the the need for locals to step up into some positions.
“We’re focused especially on the homegrown talent because we know the other can be imported. I think our job is to make sure that workforce pipeline is robust, and that we’re making sure that people are getting two-year, four-year and certificates,” said Katie Kirkpatrick, chief policy officer at the chamber.
With unemployment in the metro area at just 2.8 percent, companies will have an even harder time finding qualified workers without substantial local training.
Some in the community were relieved when Amazon decided not to pick Atlanta for either of its two new headquarters operations, noting that the arrival of such a big influx of tech workers would have depleted the local technology pool while exacerbating urban problems such as gentrification and the related lack of affordable housing.
But Ms. Moddelmog told Global Atlanta that corporate headquarters and outposts like BlackRock’s thousand-job innovation center benefit from mixing existing relocated talent with local hires.
“When they can move people like Mercedes-Benz moved people, about 30-40 percent, and then you hire from here, you get this melding of cultures, and that’s where true diversity works,” she said.
There’s also another dimension: Bringing back Atlantans who were educated here but had to pursue high-tech careers elsewhere when the jobs weren’t so plentiful.
Georgia Tech grad Allison Powers, a product of Cobb County public schools, said on stage that she’s excited to return to Atlanta after 10 years away (including two in Silicon Valley) to become head of research and innovation for Germany-based Thyssenkrupp Elevator, which is to set up a new Americas headquarters and testing tower at The Battery Atlanta. The eventual jobs impact: 1,000.
“We knew we needed an area that mirrored our culture and spirit of innovation and problem solving, with visionary thinkers that would help Thyssenkrupp elevators to continue to provide best-in-class products and services to our customers,” Ms. Powers said of the company’s choice of Atlanta.
The city is a place, she said, where tech and business mix well.
“I have witnessed first hand the top-notch technical and business acumen in Atlanta when the magic that happens when those two groups come together and collaborate in the spirit of open innovation.”
Toward the end of the event, the chamber made a special presentation to outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal’s REACH Foundation in recognition of the governor’s partnership with the business community over eight years. REACH’s $2,500 scholarships help cover the cost of college for students who maintain certain standards of conduct and educational achievement throughout high school.
Atlanta’s Global Reputation, Political Shifts
As in years past, the chamber vowed to oppose any pending laws it perceives to potentially discriminatory, with Ms. Moddelmog and Mr. Abney noting that they will seek “common ground” with Georgia Governor-Elect Brian Kemp, who ran on a pro-small-business platform but also said he wouldn’t shy away from signing so-called “religious liberty” legislation.
Mr. Deal vetoed similar legislation in years past under pressure from business groups and the threat of losing major sporting events like the Super Bowl.
Atlanta’s inclusiveness and diversity is part of a global appeal that is growing as the city’s reputation spreads around the world, Mr. Abney said.
“I believe there are still some people who believe Atlanta is a nice large Southern town,” he said, noting he sometimes has to point out the difference between the city and the broader South for those poised to move here. “You’re coming to a global city, you’re going to see the diversity fo the global city and you’re going to see what makes Atlanta special, and I absolutely believe that. I think the message is getting across.”
The chamber unveiled a new online platform for locals to help tell a unified story when serving as ambassadors for the city. The ATLBrandBox includes photos, rankings and more. Leaders also plugged THEA, an online network of video content produced by Atlanta creators that the chamber unveiled at last year’s annual meeting before launching earlier this year at SXSW in Austin.