Amazon's robot hiring spree parallels logistics boom

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Dive Brief:

  • From December 2015 to December 2016, Amazon increased its robot staff by 15,000 at approximately 20 fulfillment centers, marking a 50% increase in non-human workers, the Seattle Times reported last month.
  • While the exact number of workers hired in that same period remains unclear, reports indicate a 46% increase between the fourth quarter of 2015 and the third quarter 2016. 
  • Wal-Mart is also adding to its squad of automated workforce, mainly within the accounting and invoicing departments, where higher-paid and longer-tenured staff tend to cluster, Digital Trends reported in September. A whopping 7,000 jobs are estimated to be eliminated as a result of automation.

Dive Insight:

It’s a known fact that the U.S. has lost 5 million jobs in the manufacturing sector since 2000, and while free trade is often blamed for the losses, many credit the rise of technology as the real reason for the loss of jobs.

Yet, neither Wal-Mart nor Amazon are manufacturers, and some would suggest the retailers are part of a new trend of job shifts, this time certainly tied to e-commerce and automation. Digital Trends suggests we may be experiencing a “fourth industrial revolution,” with yet another 5 million jobs expected to be eliminated in favor of robots.

Unlike manufacturing in the 2000s, however, this new trend is more visible. A manufacturer looking to decrease lead times and reduce operating costs may invest in technology, offshore, shift sourcing tactics or improve data management and forecasts through data acquisition. Robots are just a piece of the puzzle, albeit clearly an important one.

The rise of robots in the retail space, meanwhile, requires far more obvious implementations, especially for companies like Amazon and Wal-Mart who operate their own fulfillment processes. As consumers demand two-day shipping, and have come to expect it over the course of a few years, the retailers looking to decrease their fulfillment timelines must independently automate rote processes like picking and sorting — and if such changes cost jobs, they make the news as they cannot pass the blame to independent providers.

A potentially heartening caveat is that the increase in automation is caused, in this case, by an increase in domestic demand. Even if partly and fully automated warehouses become commonplace, the workforce growth in the logistics sector parallels the increase in technology investments.

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