Amazon to retrain one-third of US workers as automation advances
Amazon has increasingly turned to robots and automation technology to fetch products from the shelves of its warehouses to ship to customers. Now the company says it needs to help its workers adapt to the rapid change.
The e-commerce giant said Thursday that it planned to spend $700 million to retrain a third of its workers in the United States, an acknowledgment that advances in technology are remaking the role of workers in nearly every industry. Amazon operates a North Bay fulfillment center in Vacaville.
Amazon said the program amounts to one of the world’s largest employee-retraining efforts. It will apply across the company, from corporate employees to warehouse workers. The company said about 100,000 workers would be retrained by 2025.
Even as Amazon is racing to fill thousands of high-skill jobs at its Seattle headquarters and elsewhere, the company is relying on technology that could threaten jobs performed by workers in the company’s warehouses, where automation already plays a central role; devices tell workers which direction to walk to pick up a package from a shelf.
The company is hungry for skilled workers. In November, Amazon selected Northern Virginia as the site of a second headquarters as part of an expansion effort to fill open roles near strategic partners. Executives said that the company needed to look beyond Seattle, its longtime home, to fill its need for talent.
Ardine Williams, Amazon’s vice president of people operations, said the company had more than 20,000 open positions in the United States. She said the retraining initiative built on existing education programs at the company and would allow warehouse workers to learn high-tech skills that could lead to new jobs within Amazon or at other companies. Software engineering classes will be available for corporate employees without technical backgrounds, she said.
“When automation comes in, it changes the nature of work, but there are still pieces of work that will be done by people,” Williams said in an interview. “You have the opportunity to up-skill that population so they can, for example, work with the robots.”
The company said its fastest-growing skilled jobs over the past five years include data mapping specialists, data scientists, security engineers and logistics coordinators. Amazon said its training effort isn’t a response to automation. Since it began using robots it has hired more than 300,000 people; the company now has more than 200,000 robots worldwide.
Amazon faces fierce criticism from politicians on the right and left, including President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidates like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. They have held up the company as a symbol of tech industry excess, saying that Amazon avoids paying taxes, devalues workers and squashes smaller businesses. In Washington, the Federal Trade Commission has taken over antitrust oversight of the company.
Lawmakers and regulators around the world are also taking a closer look at the company. The European Union has opened an antitrust investigation of the company’s practices.
Much of the company’s workforce is warehouse staff who handle the increasing volume of online orders. But workers worldwide have criticized the company’s practices, arguing the company’s success has benefited shareholders and Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, but not those further down the ladder. Amazon pulled out of plans to open a new campus in New York City amid the political backlash over the incentives package it negotiated from city and state officials.
Amazon has responded to the criticism in part by touting its contributions to the economy and role in providing jobs. Amazon employs more than 630,000 people globally and about 300,000 in the United States, where the company has committed to paying a minimum wage of $15 per hour.