A New Amazon Warehouse Would Bring Jobs, but for How Long?

An employee at an Amazon fulfillment center, a "picker" as the company calls it,  next to two robots (bottom) that shuttle goods around the warehouse. [Amazon]
An employee at an Amazon fulfillment center, a "picker" as the company calls it, next to two robots (bottom) that shuttle goods around the warehouse. [Amazon]
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Amazon says the new warehouse its planning to open in Euclid in 2019 will create 1,000 new jobs. But some of those jobs may have a short shelf-life. 

"I'd say those thousand jobs are pretty safe for two to three years, said Ken Boyer, a professor who studies supply chain management at Ohio State University. "But if you look five to seven years out, there's a good chance many of those jobs will migrate away."

The reason behind that, according to Boyer, is the same thing that's been disrupting the manufacturing industry for years: robots.

To meet exploding demand, Amazon has been investing millions in robots that autonomously whisk merchandise around its warehouses more quickly and efficiently. As a result, Boyer said "most of the jobs in a warehouse are in danger of automation."

Currently, humans in Amazon fulfillment centers work alongside robots, with the machines taking on the more strenuous or repetitive tasks such as stacking boxes or pulling products off the shelf. Rather than making human workers obsolete, "buildings that have Amazon Robotics require more employees," said an Amazon spokeswoman in an email. "Automation helps employees by making the jobs in our fulfillment center more efficient and redirects their focus on more sophisticated tasks." 

Sayan Chatterjee, a professor who studies business innovation at Case Western Reserve University, said as the company faces growing competition from Walmart and other retailers, Amazon will be forced to cut costs. In part, that means finding ways to automate the work that's currently being done by people. Still, he says there are certain tasks, like packing delicate items, that people still do better.

"You have to ensure that the product doesn't break, or it doesn't spill, and that may be difficult for robots to understand."

So, when it comes to vases and bottles of shampoo, chalk one up for humans.

But Chatterjee says that could change as the technology improves. The Amazon warehouse employees with more job security, he said, aren't those working beside the bots, but those who program them. 

And it seems Amazon recognizes this. According to the Amazon spokeswoman, the company has a program called Career Choice, in which it pays employees to take classes in subjects like robotics, computer science, and engineering.

In a world where automation seems inevitable, Boyer said such retraining programs will be increasingly necessary to create paths for workers with basic skills to advance their careers. 

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