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OM in the News: Amazon Revs Up Its Warehouses

December 2, 2016
An employee at Amazon's center in Schertz, Texas

An employee at Amazon’s center in Schertz, Texas

“This year alone, Amazon has built 26 new warehouses, bringing its world-wide total to 149,” reports The Wall Street Journal (Nov. 29, 2016). And it wants its new warehouse employees to get to work—fast. To prepare for the flood of holiday orders already under way, Amazon has been using technology ranging from touch screens to scanners to robots to shrink the time it takes to train new hires to as little as 2 days, compared with up to 6 weeks for a conventional warehouse job. The shorter training period saves Amazon money as it expands its workforce by 40%, adding 120,000 U.S. temporary workers for the peak holiday sales season. These types of workers can stay on from 6 weeks to 3 months to drive forklifts or pick orders.

Amazon trainees get hands-on training as early as their first day on the job. On the warehouse floor, they learn how to pack up shipments, coached by a screen that tells them which box size to use and automatically spits out a piece of tape to fit it. In conventional warehouses, by contrast, new employees typically spend their first days in classroom training.

A typical Amazon warehouse has loading docks for trucks to pull up to on either side to keep merchandise moving through. Two shifts keep operations running nearly 24 hours a day as the holidays approach, with groups of employees keeping goods moving along an 8-mile maze of conveyor belts. Orange robots that move faster than humans carry shelves full of merchandise to stations where workers can reach them. Screens show the workers what the desired item looks like and where it is placed so they can pluck it off the shelf quickly and accurately. That’s a far cry from a conventional warehouse, where workers have to memorize—often by location number—where items are stored, and then go looking for them when needed.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Is it difficult to recruit workers for these short seasonal jobs?
  2. Who are the typical recruits?
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