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Amazon HQ2 bid becomes topic for Pitt-Greensburg business ethics students

| Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, 5:21 p.m.
Professor of philosophy at Greensburg's University of Pittsburgh campus Bryan McCarthy speaks about a project for business ethics that involved debating the benefits or consequences of an Amazon headquarters being built in Pittsburgh on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017 at Lynch Hall on the University of Pittsburgh's Greensburg campus.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
Professor of philosophy at Greensburg's University of Pittsburgh campus Bryan McCarthy speaks about a project for business ethics that involved debating the benefits or consequences of an Amazon headquarters being built in Pittsburgh on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017 at Lynch Hall on the University of Pittsburgh's Greensburg campus.

It's a question on the minds of a lot of important people, and for the last three months, 56 students at the University of Pittsburgh's Greensburg campus have researched and examined it: What would it mean, exactly, to land Amazon's second headquarters?

The Pittsburgh region — with offers of support coming from as far afield as Erie and Fairmont, W.Va. — was one of 238 bidders when Amazon requested proposals from potential host cities.

For his business ethics classes, Professor Bryan McCarthy saw the Amazon contest as an opportunity to apply his lessons through research and debate of a real-world, contemporary topic as it was unfolding. In September, much of his lesson plan was changed in favor of exploring the Amazon bid.

Students were divided into teams to debate whether Amazon would be a good place to work, whether it would be economically good for the city and whether it would negatively affect the city's identity.

“Certain things we discussed seemed to be so far-fetched, we didn't believe they were true,” said senior Sai Gopi, one of the students researching workplace conditions at the company.

Online reviews, job postings, and even firsthand accounts from an acquaintance who took a job at Amazon indicated a work-intensive culture where 60-plus-hour weeks and high turnover were the norm, but self-direction and responsibility promoted personal growth, the students said. On the negative side was a lack of work-life balance.

On the economic question, the students said it would definitely be a boon to the region. Senior Jeremy Simms said that just adding up the thousands of jobs paying an average of $90,000 would add billions to the local economy over 20 years.

The Seattle-based tech giant was promising a $5 billion investment and up to 50,000 employees when it announced in September that it would seek to build a second headquarters. Simms said the students looked at a lot of data from Seattle, but it was difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison because Pittsburgh and Seattle were so different in terms of taxes, economics and workforces.

Some studies have warned that the sudden influx of high-wage jobs could spike the region's rents and housing prices. Citing confidentiality agreements and preserving a competitive advantage, state, county and city officials have refused to release what details and incentives they are offering Amazon, even though dozens of other communities have made their bids public.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos possibly had his mind made up already, the students said, but was gaining attention and driving up bidders' tax incentives with what sophomore Emily Downings called a “bachelor”-style competition among cities to woo the company.

Whether the flood of high-paid tech workers would change Pittsburgh's identity was the question for the last two teams.

“Looking at Pittsburgh and some of the changes it's endured — looking at the collapse of the steel industry; it went away completely, and Pittsburgh still clung to that as part of its identity,” said sophomore Rachel Slonecker. “Whenever that identity is so strongly ingrained ... I don't think something like this is going to have that much of an effect.”

Since students were assigned to sides in the debate that they had to defend regardless of whether they personally agreed with it, success in the debate was measured by how much the discussion swayed the rest of the students in one direction or another, McCarthy said. From the course, he hoped students had learned how to understand the motivations and goals of the different stakeholders — the employees, the environment, customers, suppliers, shareholders and society — and how that understanding could help them work toward common goals.

In the end, even though most of the students thought Amazon in Pittsburgh would be a net positive for workers, the economy and the local culture, they were still evenly divided at the end of the class over whether they wanted Pittsburgh to win.

“Pittsburgh was already positively evolving, it's whether it gets there instantly (with Amazon) or through more gradual change,” Gopi said.

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724 836 6660, or via Twitter @msantoni.

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