Ethics. It will always go in hand with automation, because automation strives to remove the human element. I mentioned it before about how we should try to be ethical when thinking about what we automate, and I also mentioned how most of the time we will bend the rules to be unethical in order to drive margins. Amazon is the trifecta of automation. It has everything down to a science and if you look at its workforce you barely see a single employee and yet the company is so large. It’s an investor’s dream: Run a company that scales infinitely and uses as few resources as possible to succeed.
When I read a recent article about UK Amazon employees being mistreated, I found myself confused over the controversy, especially for warehouse employees. Having experience in the logistics business, it is very common for warehouses to have the absolute bare minimum in order to keep employees safe. Air conditioning and heating are impractical due to the cost to cool and heat such a space and the work itself is extremely mindless and redundant. Work has to be done quickly and the margins are tight, particularly with packages, because they need to go out and be delivered on time. The reality is that human’s aren’t capable of this kind of work anymore and at the scale being asked for.
The logical answer would be to hire more employees, but there are several problems with this. The first one is that a lot of people may not want to work in a warehouse making low pay; this makes it hard to hire more workers. Another problem is that retention can be hard with jobs that aren’t desirable in the first place. Warehouse jobs aren’t careers and they don’t particularly attract motivated and hard working people looking to stay with a company for a long time. The biggest one though, is that paying employees more or offering compensation packages to make their jobs easier isn’t desirable from a company standpoint; those costs add up for a system that you want to make as cheap as possible.
It Pays to Abuse.
A very common practice that logistic companies do to not pay a lot of money for employees who help box and sort packages is to keep them temporarily. This is more commonly seen during the holiday season, where companies like Amazon, FedEx, and UPS will hire in bulk seasonal employees to work in packaging centers and assist drivers in delivering packages. Most of the employees are let go shortly after the season ends and a few are retained. Another common motivator to get people to work in a warehouse is to target people who aren’t looking for a career. College students are very popular candidates because they don’t mind working late hours and the pay is good enough to sustain them through their semesters at school.
I had the pleasure to visit a packaging center for a big name logistics company and it is very grueling work. One of the most important things they do is make sure they aren’t paying employees too much money by tracking their hours very closely. It’s important that they punch in on time no more and no less. It’s also good to make sure none of them work overtime in order to not have to pay out extra. These places are very hot in the summer and the work is mindless. Some of these tasks include throwing packages into certain bins based on their size or packaging type and moving boxes in and out of the trucks. All of this is timed and monitored to make sure you aren’t slowing down and keeping up with demand.
Another important aspect is the technology installed in these buildings. A lot of it is to decrease the number of people needed to work and it’s also to insure that those who are working are working at absolute maximum capacity. This cuts down on the costs of paying employees and also by keeping the work simple so that you don’t have to pay so much for the quality of work. Anyone can do the tasks given in an average warehouse; it requires no education and the work itself is easily replaceable by the next person willing to do it.
Unions Prohibit Profit and Progress.
It is also important to consider that companies will not tolerate unions. If you ever work for a corporate branch, it is not uncommon to be assigned to watch training videos on why unions are bad. The reason why is because unions can potentially slow down progress and they prevent the kind of passable conditions you would see in Amazon’s warehouses. Strikes can be a disaster for a company like Amazon who has strict strict deadlines. So when ex-Amazon employees say that they are shown the door as soon as unions are discussed, it’s not very surprising to see. It makes sense, because offering anything competitive to someone who just sorts and moves boxes doesn’t really make sense anymore–even if the work is physically tough.
Complaining Leads to Replacement.
So what will happen if nothing changes? What if workers go on strike or refuse to fulfill their corporation’s demands? Most likely, these employees will be phased out and replaced with automation. In my mind there are two reasons why we still have our jobs: One reason is that software can’t can do our job without people and the second reason is that it’s cheaper to use people than to automate them. If you get rid of one these reasons then it’s only a matter of time before you are phased out of your industry.
What Happens From Here?
What will happen in the future as automation and technology begin to integrate more and more into our personal lives and the workplace? Simple jobs that people like to work to make some quick cash will most likely disappear. These jobs include retail, services in fast food, and transportation. Next will come office jobs that don’t require a lot of technical skill. However, what I think will be interesting to see is the jobs that get created from automation. In the beginning of this post, I wrote that Amazon’s warehouse workers can’t keep up with the demand of the business anymore. This is the result of how the automation put in place works faster than what the employee themselves can handle. The jobs aren’t technical and the machines in place can keep up faster while human workers scramble to satisfy the metrics set out for them by management. This will translate to more technical roles in a similar way. As a doctor in an automated setting, you may be tracked with how fast you go from one patient’s room to another and the time it took you to diagnose what was wrong and make and how long it took to make recommendations. More will be expected of every technical role because automation took out the parts that took us the most time to do. When you remove the hard parts like figuring out where the room for patient x is and figuring out why they came in, then it becomes all about customer satisfaction. Questions like: “Why did it take you so long to figure out that your patient has a cold? It took you two minutes, but it really should have taken you one.” This question and statement may seem ridiculous, but if it doesn’t take a lot of work anymore to diagnose patients, then you become expected to be able to diagnose more of them and do it more accurately.
When the technology age came, everyone thought we would work less. Instead, we got more work because computers and software allowed us to do everything faster. Now, with automation comes a new age. I believe that age is the age of the customer, and with it will come the disappearance of the non-technical workforce. It’s not about just doing your job right anymore, it will be about doing your job faster and taking on more work so the customer gets what they want faster. In my opinion, I see a world where simple jobs become harder, and if you don’t want to learn new skills, then you will be left behind. Those who are left behind will be unemployed and my concern is what do we do with the non-technical workforce in a technical world?