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“Robots Couldn’t Do MY Job”: Warehouse Workers Don’t Fear Automation

A recent survey shows that 94 percent of U.S. workers — across all industries — are confident that their jobs will NOT be replaced by automation. This optimism was one of the most surprising findings in the new NPR/Marist poll.

Typical among the responses was the assured mood of  Chris Beatty, 26, who works fulfilling order in a cosmetics warehouse in Burlington, N.J.

Using a hand-held scanner to find specific items like face cream or lipstick — Beatty tracks down products to be sorted, packed and shipped to online customers. In the order fulfillment industry, this is called picking.

When asked if a robot could do the same job, Beatty pauses for a bit. “That’s a tough one,” he says eventually, “but I don’t think a robot could do this.”

Or, maybe he just doesn’t want to believe he could be replaced. “I love my job too much,” he says, with a smile. Interviews with numerous warehouse workers at Beatty’s employer — Radial — and others employed by Amazon showed similar confidence about job security into the future.

But this optimism is contradicted by economic forecasters who show that giants like Amazon and Walmart are already speeding up warehouse work with machines.

Because online shopping continues to grow as a rapid rate, business for retail warehouses is booming — along with the jobs they provide. But the industry buzzword is automation. Labor economists point out that the industry is quickly following the same path that reshaped manufacturing, where intense competition and massive scale result in pressures for efficiency to keep costs down.

The warehouse companies themselves typically say that robots will enhance and ease human labor, not “replace” it. For example, Amazon, which has put thousands of robots on its floors, maintains a massive workforce and seems to be on a constant hiring spree. Amazon currently has more than 75 fulfillment centers, the majority of which employ at least a thousand full-time hourly workers. “Our 25+ robotics fulfillment centers employ 2,000 to 4,000 full-time hourly associates,” an Amazon spokeswoman told NPR.

And warehouse employees themselves believe it will be tricky for automation to do the work they already do.

“There’s a lot of jobs in here that could be taken over by machines, but who’s going to run the building?” says Marc Munn, who manages the department where Beatty works. “If something breaks … I don’t think we’ll have other machines in here to fix that, so that’s where my job comes into play.”

Packer Bibiana Ramos points out the precision and care of her work. “I know there’s machines that make boxes, but not this kind of boxes,” she says. Ramos folds tissue paper inside a special box, placing cosmetics on top and gently affixing the shipping label. “It has to be kind of … meticulous,” she says, “so it could have a good presentation.”

The supervisor of the Radial warehouse, admits that investing in robots makes more sense in a large million-square-foot Amazon facility than a small operation like his — and of course robots aren’t cheap.

He shares the story of RFID chips — little tags that started popping up in warehouses years back, when he worked for Walmart. They held the promise of easy, instantaneous automated accounting of all the items in a pallet, for example. But they didn’t take off, he says, because of the cost of tagging every single item, especially cheap common goods like toothpaste.

Plus, the machines for now aren’t really that skillful.

“You could never say never,” Economos says. “But at this time … you would literally need a robot with the dexterity, with the fingers to pick up something light, as small as a ChapStick, and as large as a bottle of shampoo.”

One Amazon warehouse worker says her job includes making boxes for items that the scanners can’t handle — like a fishing rod that’s too thin for the lasers to recognize.

“A lot of the machines I see or deal with in the warehouse really aren’t that great,” she says, speaking anonymously to not violate the terms of her employment. “There are just so many things that you need a competent human to deal with in our warehouse.”

But she’s actually eager to see robots deal with heavy lifting and the messy parts of the job.

That appeals to Beatty, too, once he learns that Amazon has robots to bring the shelves to workers, instead of workers walking the aisles in search of products.

“That would be pretty cool,” he says, “to see a robot bring some of your work to you.”

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