2020 warehouse job trends: robots aren't taking workers' jobs, but...
Speculation about robots taking humans’ jobs is particularly intense in the warehouse industry, and with good reason - Amazon is infamous for showing new employees the robots and using exactly that threat to scare them into productivity.
However, a new study by professors at the University of Illinois found that automation isn’t going to replace warehouse workers any time soon… but over the next decade, it is likely to make their lives harder.
The report, entitled ‘The Future of Warehouse Work: Technological Change in the U.S. Logistics Industry’, found that while automation can reduce hard, monotonous tasks like heavy lifting for warehouse workers, it could also damage their health, safety, and morale, and lead to faster employee turnover.
It turns out that what really puts the pressure on workers is not a look at the robots, but the robots looking at them.
Tools like body sensors, self-driving shelving carts, and AI-powered management systems are forcing workers to work harder and faster under constant scrutiny. Great for productivity, not so great for health and sanity.
The warehousing industry
Warehouse workers handle the storage and flow of goods. That includes receiving goods, sorting, packing them, and sending them to consumers or retailers. E-commerce has made this a booming field, with employee numbers set to rise by 21% between 2016 and 2026.
While increasing employment usually leads to increased wages, warehouse workers’ wages (when you adjust for inflation) have dropped, and unionisation rates dropped from 14% in 1990 to 6% in 2018. In other words, the profits from the e-commerce boom are not trickling down to the workers - despite the fact that warehouse workers are twice as likely to be injured as workers in all other private sector occupations.
The American report also found that 66% of front-line warehouse workers were people of colour - meaning they’ll be disproportionately hit by the effects of automation.
These changes are driven by Amazon, which has set such a high bar for delivery speeds that every competitor is under pressure to keep up. The introduction of free one-day shipping for Prime members, even on the cheapest items, will only intensify this pressure.
While new tech can help warehouse workers - Amazon’s programmable Kiva robot can transport and shelve packages, and robotic arms can do some of the heavy lifting - when the robots get too helpful, employees lose out on human interaction. There’s a mental health benefit when people can help each other.
And that’s before we get into the role of the less friendly machines - monitoring employees’ every move. Sensors worn on workers’ bodies analyse and inform them about their performance in real time, measure them against their colleagues, and set them more challenging goals.
New tech can also ‘gamify’ warehouse work, pitting workers against each other. At Amazon, a Tetris-like game called MissionRacer drives pickers to compete in a virtual race that mirrors their real-life work speed, causing physical strain and injuries. One young worker, Eric Guillen, suffered a hernia at 23. “It pushed us to the limits,” he says. “They made us follow unrealistic rates.” This pressure boosts productivity in the short term - but for how long? The survey found that productivity gains could quickly be erased by the new health and safety hazards, burnout, and higher employee turnovers caused by the invasive new tech.
Then there’s the question of data privacy. Do workers have a right to know how all the data collected on them at work is used? If it’s to develop AI for autonomous machines, employees may be being used to train their own replacements.
There could still be an upside to all this. As machines take over more routine tasks, workers could be freed up to learn new skills, leading to higher-paid and more interesting work.
Robot management and maintenance could be a more skilled and stable career path than being a picker. However, specialised roles like this will be relatively few by comparison.
Then there’s the fact that many companies don’t own their own robots; they lease them from third-party companies, which are the ones hiring people to train and maintain their machines.
The report raises questions for employers and policymakers about how to support warehouse workers through this transition. Although robots may eventually take some warehouse jobs, they don’t have to make human employees suffer physically and mentally in the process. That’s happening because of choices made by other humans, and better policy and implementation can stop it happening.
Warehouse operators stand to gain a lot from new technology; the question is how these gains will be distributed.
Robots aren’t inherently good or bad; they’re whatever we make them.