Leveraging and Innovating Professional Education to Serve Amazon’s Northern Virginia HQ2

The EvoLLLution | Amazon is Coming to Town: How We’re Getting Ready for HQ2
With Amazon’s HQ2 set to transform the labor market in Virginia and the greater Washington area, local universities are moving fast to ensure they’re able to serve the emerging demand for continuing and professional learning.

In late 2018, eCommerce giant Amazon selected Arlington, Va., outside Washington, D.C., as its site for its second corporate headquarters (dubbed HQ2). HQ2 is expected to directly employ 25,000 people, and by 2030 it’s expected to generate $15b in economic activity and 62,000 jobs in Northern Virginia. With so many new jobs being created in fast-moving and high-demand employment categories, the pressure on higher education institutions to innovate, evolve and serve this emerging labor market is significant. In this interview, Michelle Marks reflects on how George Mason University will leverage both its credit and non-credit programming to serve the expected influx of professionals.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the most significant benefits you expect for the community—especially for George Mason and other colleges and universities in the area—with Amazon’s HQ2 decision?

Michelle Marks (MM): Amazon’s HQ2 is a game changer for Virginia and the greater Washington area. The arrival of the new headquarters promises to bring 25,000 high paying jobs to the commonwealth. This is a tremendous win as our region has seen slow economic growth in recent years. Perhaps more importantly, bringing one of the world’s leading tech companies to Northern Virginia will help diversify our regional economy, which has been heavily reliant on the federal government. Amazon’s presence will undoubtedly lead to increased demand and competition for talent in many fields, particularly those related to computing.

Tech talent is already in high demand in the region. Our employers are telling us they need more graduates in high demand areas such as computer science, cyber and data analytics. This is a great example of how higher education contributes to the regional economy. Virginia’s higher education institutions will play a key role in building the workforce to meet this demand. We are the talent producers, and this role has never been more important.

In fact, the strength of our regional universities greatly influenced Amazon’s decision to locate here. They’re depending on us to create and sustain a strong, skilled workforce. And Mason is positioned to respond. We are recognized as a primary economic engine in the state. We attract learners of all socioeconomic backgrounds from across the nation and around the globe and we’re increasingly known as a destination for accessible world-class learning. We’re making investments to triple our graduates in critical demand areas, and that means increasing our faculty, building facilities, and creating new degree and professional development programs to meet the demand.

Evo: How do you expect to see demand for non-credit and continuing education programming to evolve as Amazon begins to fill its HQ2 offices?

MM: I expect that HQ2 will create an ongoing need for non-credit and continuing education programming. There will be many individuals who will want to be prepared to land one of those high paying Amazon jobs, and the very nature of Amazon’s business will inevitably increase demand for professional development. Constant technological advancement represents one of the biggest challenges to employers today. It’s no longer enough to complete a degree and enter the workforce—the rate of digital innovation requires investment in continuous learning. There’s been a growing need for non-credit and continuing education programming, and mainstream universities have been, frankly, reluctant to step into this space. And in our absence a new ecosystem of education players emerged providing working professionals with options such as employer training programs and certifications and bootcamps.

Despite our reluctance, the opportunity remains. Our regional CEOs have made it clear: While they have made big investments in corporate learning programs in the recent years, they recognize that continuing education and professional development are better left to higher education institutions. Employers are asking universities to take a more active role in supporting their talent pipeline and are increasingly signaling their willingness to collaborate. They want universities to do what universities do best—education. Of course, at Mason, we agree.

We are committed to expanding educational access for all students, not just traditional 18 to 24 year olds.

So the question then becomes how do we successfully step into this space? It starts with our employers. We need them to clearly identify their needs. We need to know, what do people really need to be successful at work? And employers are doing a better job asking themselves the tough questions. What they are finding is that while they will always need specific technical skills and knowledge, there are also foundational skills like systems thinking, leadership, teamwork, critical problem analysis, design thinking, social skills, empathy and other competencies that help employees thrive and develop.

Amazon and other employers are looking to us to help better understand the education to employment process and through career pathways, and the holistic set of knowledge, skills and abilities they need from their workforce, now and in the future. And we are building more professional development programs, many offered through flexible online delivery, to support this shift.

Evo: What kinds of scale-related changes—in terms of academic offerings and student support—will you need to make to meet this increased demand?

MM: We will have to continue to grow and to build strong programs that meet the needs of our region’s employers. Fortunately, we’re up to the task. Mason is a dynamic institution. We are Virginia’s fastest growing university. Though we are less than 50 years old, we are the commonwealth’s largest and most diverse public research institution and have driven 58 percent of the enrollment growth in Virginia over the past decade. We are also the only public research university headquartered in Northern Virginia. With nearly 38,000 students this year, we are a lead talent producer for the region, and we’re already working across the university to ensure that our programs are aligned with critical job demand.  Among Virginia’s public institutions, Mason has the greatest number of computing students—more than 6,000—enrolled in majors such computer and data science and engineering, information systems and technology, and cybersecurity engineering.

We recently announced plans for a significant expansion of our university, which includes several initiatives on our Arlington campus that will support Amazon’s new headquarters. In the next few years, we will be growing our Arlington campus to 1.2 million square feet and tripling the number of students enrolled in computer science, computer engineering, information technology and other closely related fields. By 2024, we will have 15,000 students (10,000 undergraduate and 5,000 graduate) in these disciplines.

We are launching a new School of Computing in 2019, which will be the first of its kind and will collaborate across the university to advance the application of computing technology and data sciences to fields ranging from government to business to education to healthcare.

We also have plans for multidisciplinary Institute for Digital InnovAtion, a university think tank and incubator to serve the digital economy. This will house over 1,200 entrepreneurs, researchers, technologists and business leaders in the bustling Ballston-Rosslyn corridor.

We’re also planning a major expansion of our online presence in these areas with both undergraduate and graduate programs.

Evo: From a programmatic perspective, how important will collaborations between Executive and Professional Education and main campus faculties be to serve Amazon’s educational needs?

MM: Serving Amazon’s educational needs will require us to work across offices and disciplines. We’ll need a full-court press to serve working professionals and produce career-ready graduates. In fact, the line between professional education and degree programs is increasingly blurred. Our growing awareness of employer needs has led to some of our faculty teaching in both degree-granting and professional education programs, sometimes simultaneously.

Our employers have identified critical KSAs (knowledge, skills and abilities) in areas such as data analysis, visualization and cybersecurity, and mapped them to existing course learning objectives. We are developing highly customizable stackable master’s programs that can be offered as full programs or separated as certificates. These certifications can also be disaggregated to provide targeted employer-recognized upskilling for working professionals. For example, recognizing that most jobs require a level of digital competency, we just launched a certificate in digital technology that is offered as a five-course minor that can be added to most majors on campus, with plans to make it available as a standalone credential for those who are already in the workforce and want to boost their digital proficiency.We plan to cover a wide range of skills from leadership and project management to specific technology-driven multi-skill areas like cloud engineering. This will ensure that our graduates are not only career-ready, but they are also equipped with relevant certifications for various technical professions.

Our regional employers’ needs and Amazon’s impending arrival are pushing us to redefine (or perhaps, recommit to) who we want to be for our students and our region. There are many reasons why more traditional universities have focused almost exclusively on academic degree production and little on the business of professional development. I believe it is because the best professional education requires that we establish real relationships with employers. It’s breaking down barriers, not just inside the university, but outside as well. It’s beyond asking employers for their advice; it’s becoming partners. It’s collaborating on curriculum development. It’s working together to design valuable learning experiences for our academic and our professional students.

This type of collaboration runs counter to traditional academic culture and structures. But change feels inevitable. Both employers and higher education are increasingly realizing that we’re better together.

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Key Takeaways

  • With the launch of Amazon’s HQ2, the surrounding Northern Virginia region’s need for ongoing and professional education will spike, and higher education institutions will have to move fast to meet the demand.
  • Collaboration between departments and with employers is critical to meeting evolving education needs and delivering in-demand interdisciplinary offerings.
  • Creativity in program design—the introduction of more stackable and flexible models—is also essential to serving the growing professional education market.