As robots take on more work, Amazon invests in warehouse workers' education | KUOW News and Information

As robots take on more work, Amazon invests in warehouse workers' education

Dec 20, 2017

It’s the last few days before Christmas and Amazon warehouses are buzzing with human activity — and with robots. The robots are getting more intelligent, and experts say robots will soon take more of those jobs. There are things humans can do to get ready for that future. Amazon intends to help them prepare.

I'm at a giant Amazon warehouse in Kent, just south of Seattle. More than 3,500 people have full time jobs here.

Workers are just getting off break. After a short speech about how well they're doing hitting their goals, they restart their work with a cheer: “One, two, three, Shipdock!”

These humans work in a warehouse with a whole bunch of robots. But their jobs may get taken over by robots someday, too.

Take Andrea Neri’s job. A conveyor belt brings her boxes, and she packs them into a truck. “You want to make a wall nice and tight so it doesn’t collapse on you,” she says. Neri’s job is physical and requires thought, kind of like a bricklayer.

She likes the work and needs it to support her family. “You know, because after having two kids, it was kind of like, I want to give my kids the best I can,” she says.

Eventually, a robot will be able to do this job, according to Martin Ford, a futurist and author of "The Rise of the Robots."

“Any kind of job that is on some level predictable, then there will be a machine that can do that, too,” he says. That describes a lot of warehouse work. 

Take the job Brandon Raymond had. He counted things for Amazon. It’s still a human job, because Amazon’s robots can’t look at a jumbled pile of different objects and pick them apart or count them — yet.  Raymond was grateful for the 40-hour-week job. But eventually, the repetitive nature of the work got old. “It’s tiring to count numbers all day long," he says. "You get to the point where you hate numbers. Because all you do is 'one, two, three.' It’s an all day thing for 10 hours straight.” 

You can hear more about robots and the future of work on Thursday, when KUOW releases a new episode of Primed: What Happens when Amazon comes to your town.

These jobs illustrate a coming problem: The jobs that provide entry-level opportunities for people who need work are also the most vulnerable to takeover by the coming wave of smarter robots. Artificial Intelligence is making that possible.

The technology will bring enormous benefits, according to Martin Ford. But he says the elimination of those jobs will have consequences. “More inequality, unemployment, people feeling disoriented and feeling that they’re left behind. Those are all things we need to adapt to, we need  to find solutions to that.”

Amazon employee Filomeno Saya packages items. At Amazon's Kent warehouse, ideas generated by workers have led to further automation. For example, workers used to measure out how much packing tape to place onto a box. Now, they simply punch a button indicating which standard box size they're using - and a robot spits out the correct length of tape.
Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Historically, Ford says, automation has actually created more jobs than it has destroyed (a pattern that so far, has held true at Amazon). But when advances in automation have disrupted societies before, the jobs created don't necessarily go to the people who lost their jobs to automation. 

The key, Ford says, is worker retraining. To stay relevant, we all must become lifelong learners.

Amazon seems to recognize this need and is doing something about it. It started this program called Career Choice in 2012 and has since expanded it to all hourly workers who’ve been with Amazon a year. Seasonal workers hired for shorter durations would not meet that requirement.

Through the program, Amazon will pay up to 95 percent of college tuition for workers who want to go back to school and train for other in-demand fields, like nursing or fixing robots. Classes are held right in the warehouse. Fourteen thousand people have participated so far. Amazon intends to double participation by 2020.

Andrea Neri selects boxes to build a wall in a truck at Amazon's Kent fulfillment center.
Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Andrea Neri used the program to become a certified nursing assistant. She has no plans to leave Amazon. But like 10,000 other workers currently enrolled in the program, she has options, now. “I just want to have my education as a just in case kind of thing, you know?” she says.

The person running the program is Juan Garcia. He used to be assistant secretary of the Navy under Obama. Garcia says Career Choice reminds him of the G.I. Bill. That’s a federal program that helped returning soldiers rejoin the U.S. economy after World War II. “If you were willing to, in the case of the G.I. Bill, go into harm’s way, then you walked away with, I think, this prize. A ticket to the middle class. An education.”

But Amazon’s Career Choice program is not necessarily a ticket to the middle class. An average nursing assistant makes about $35,000 a year in Seattle. It’s certainly not enough to buy a house in Seattle — that requires a household income closer to $100,000. That means it’s going to take bigger programs than Amazon can offer to train everybody for middle class jobs — after the robots come.