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GUEST ARTICLE
VCU is engineering for Amazon HQ2’s workforce
January 2019

EDITORIAL:
Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D.
Alice T. and William H. Goodwin Jr. Dean of the VCU College of Engineering

Todd Haymore really nailed it in his recent guest editorial in the Richmond Times Dispatch. Amazon HQ2 is certainly good for all of Virginia — and all of Virginia is very good for Amazon HQ2.

Haymore touched on Virginia Commonwealth University’s commitment to increasing degree production in high-demand areas, particularly computer science and engineering. As dean of the VCU College of Engineering, I’d like to tell our Virginia neighbors (Amazon included) what that commitment looks like — and why we are so focused on it.

Economic growth depends on availability of skilled talent, and VCU Engineering is the commonwealth’s go-to program for high-tech workers who stay in Virginia. Ninety percent of VCU’s engineering and computer students are in-state. After they earn these high-value degrees, 75% of graduates make their careers here in Virginia. If Amazon wants to hold onto its employees, VCU Engineering is the place to go.

Virginia’s businesses know this, and Amazon soon will. Companies looking to recruit — and retain — the state’s next generation of tech innovators line up to hire VCU Engineering graduates. That line gets longer all the time, and we are constantly growing our program to meet the demand.

Richmond’s downtown-area residents and commuters see one example of this growth every day at the corner of Belvidere and Cary Streets. There, the college is hard at work on a new $100 million research facility slated to open in 2020. This state-of-the-art building will provide an additional 133,000 square feet of advanced research and training space for engineers and computer scientists. It will be such a force-multiplier for Virginia’s workforce development goals that it is being funded with investments from the commonwealth, the business community, and VCU.

Amazon and its Virginia industry neighbors will benefit from the return on this significant investment. The additional research, training and innovation space will enable the college to grow by another 1,500 student engineers over the next few years. That expansion in facilities and student body will fuel economic development across the region and produce a workforce ready to meet the needs of industry partners like Amazon and other companies that will locate in the capital region because of Amazon.

But what about today? Well, dreams don’t stay “dreams” very long at VCU and its College of Engineering. Our motto is “Make it real” for a reason. We are already meeting industry demand for experts in two critical areas, with new post-graduate certificate programs in cybersecurity and data science.

These programs give working professionals advanced techniques for securing data, transforming data into knowledge and designing algorithms for machine learning — tools that are tailor-made for the commonwealth’s tech boom. Now professionals can stay current and gain fluency in urgently needed tech specialties. Best of all, they can do so without leaving Virginia’s workforce.

In the emerging economy, computer science isn’t just for tech workers. It’s for all workers. Many of the 25,000 Virginia-based employees Amazon plans to hire in the next five years will work in non-technical areas, but they will need to be tech savvy. VCU Engineering is ready for this, too.

The college recently launched an undergraduate fundamentals of computing specialization program available to all VCU students from any department or major outside of computer science. This suite of four courses gives students a digital specialization they can add to their degrees in the arts, humanities, communications or any other field. In this way, we are helping all VCU graduates add value to the sophisticated new jobs being added to Virginia companies.

Like many companies, Amazon is working to build diversity at all levels. VCU Engineering’s tremendously diverse student body and faculty will help the tech giant achieve this goal as it staffs Virginia HQ2. The National Science Foundation’s most recent report indicated that women made up 19 percent of the nation’s undergraduate engineering and computer science students. At VCU Engineering, a quarter of undergraduates are female.

These numbers keep growing, particularly in areas where gender diversity has traditionally been a struggle. In the last five years, women enrollments in computer science have more than doubled at VCU. Women enrollments in computer engineering have tripled. These women engineers and computer scientists exit VCU’s program well-rounded and ready to meet the needs of all of Virginia’s top employers.

As Virginians, let’s not be overly concerned with where Amazon is in Virginia. Amazon HQ2’s influence — and its needs — will be too big to be confined to Northern Virginia. The digital economy is a distributed economy. This means that the people who work for and with Amazon, who are creating the technologies they will want to acquire, will come from all over the commonwealth. What counts is that Amazon is in Virginia. And we here in Central Virginia are ready to help Amazon be the best company it can be. ##


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