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Online Retail Boom Means More Warehouse Workers, And Robots To Accompany Them

Robots move racks of merchandise at an Amazon fulfillment center in Tracy, Calif. When a robot finds its storage unit, it glides underneath, lifts it up and then delivers it to a worker.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
Robots move racks of merchandise at an Amazon fulfillment center in Tracy, Calif. When a robot finds its storage unit, it glides underneath, lifts it up and then delivers it to a worker.

There's a good chance something you've bought online has been in the hands of a "picker" first. These are the workers in warehouses who pick, pack and ship all those things we're ordering.

At Amazon and other companies, they're working side by side with robots. Experts say while the robots are replacing some human workers, the machines aren't quite ready to take over completely.

To keep pace with a growing hunger for fast delivery, more pickers are being hired in the distribution industry. And on the outskirts of the Bay Area, a school is using technology to train students in these new jobs.

Patterson High School is about two hours east of San Francisco. It's surrounded by the farmland of California's Central Valley, which produces half of the country's fruits, vegetables and nuts. But this group of students isn't learning how to be farmers. They're training to work in warehouses.

Recently, teacher Hilario Garcia was instructing a student perched on a virtual reality forklift simulator. The machine is part of a mock warehouse the school built for vocational courses to train students like Justin Lockhart.

He says he appreciates having such a course, especially in a town dominated by farming. "It's now turned into a big logistics and distribution center out there," including an Amazon facility, Lockhart notes. The giant online retailer operates one of a dozen distribution centers just down the road.

Stanislaus County has struggled with unemployment. But since 2000, warehouse and transport jobs have more than doubled, from 4,000 to over 9,000. Those workers keep the stream of items flowing to customers, most of whom are in the richer urban areas to the north and west.

Mariela Zepeda works at a local CVS distribution center. Her nimble fingers snag everything from bottles of pills to boxes of condoms. She has to move quickly to ship these orders. The company tracks her progress.

"It's heavy work, but it definitely beats fast food chains or anything like that," she says.

For one, pay is better. Zepeda, who's also a part-time college student, says she makes $14.79 an hour. Companies advertise entry-level hourly wages of $11 to $14, sometimes with benefits. It's a good start Zepeda says, but it isn't the kind of job you can support a family with — not in Patterson. It's close to the Bay Area, which means housing isn't cheap.

"Me, by myself ... maybe I can get by," Zepeda says. "But if you're trying to feed a family, definitely no, I don't think so. I think a lot of places are like that too."

Shelley Burcham is the economic development manager for Tracy, another distribution hub about 30 minutes north of Patterson. "We know that there are citizens that require these entry-level jobs, or that's their skillset," she says. "But we want to kind of up the game."

Burcham wants jobs Tracy can build a community around. Jobs that pay enough for people to own a house and raise a family here. Jobs in industries like tech and high-skilled manufacturing. Right now, most people who live in Tracy don't work here.

"About 70 percent of our resident workforce actually commutes out of Tracy every day," Burcham says. "They go to the Bay Area."

Patterson and Tracy are just two of many small towns that have become distribution hubs to feed wealthier urban centers. There's Union, N.J., outside of New York City, Riverside by Los Angeles, and many others. While companies continue to hire human pickers for their warehouses, they're also automating the work.

The Amazon fulfillment center in Tracy is huge — it's about 1 million square feet, or the size of 28 football fields. Visiting it is like walking through a ginormous machine. There are miles of conveyor belts moving an endless stream of yellow plastic boxes carrying customers' orders.

"It's all part of the symphony of Amazon fulfillment," says Ashley Robinson, an Amazon spokesperson. (Amazon is among NPR's financial supporters.)

Only the conductor of this symphony is a computer. It keeps track of every item in the warehouse, with the goal of getting the stuff to you, the consumer, as quickly as possible.

Orange robots that look like large square hockey pucks fetch the stuff customers order online. The robots glide around the warehouse through a labyrinth of thousands of storage units — shelves crammed with a random assortment of stuff: books, paper towels, board games — or zombie bobbleheads.

When a robot finds its storage unit, it glides underneath, lifts it up and then delivers it to a worker — they're called pickers. On a recent day, the computer told a picker to grab what looked like a fantasy board game. The picker found it, scanned it and placed it on the conveyer belt.

"In a traditional fulfillment center where the associate would walk to the different items, it can take hours to fulfill a customer order," Robinson says.

Now, with the help of robots, that task takes minutes — and fewer humans.

So is this a sign we're entering a new industrial revolution?

"It's definitely going to take over a lot of jobs," says Karen Myers, a scientist at SRI, one of Silicon Valley's oldest research centers.

At the same time, she says, we're running against the limits of technology. Take "the picker" at the Amazon fulfilment center. Myers says those skills are proving to be uniquely human.

"Our fingers are incredibly dexterous and the current generation of robotic manipulators, they're getting much, much better," she says. "But they're just not quite there yet."

There's also the robot's brain.

Remember that board game the Amazon worker was looking for? She could barely see the box — it was crammed into the storage bin — but she could tell it was a board game. Robots can't do that.

Technologists say that, increasingly, humans will work side by side with robots — instead of robots working alone.

Amazon says robots and humans enabled the Tracy warehouse to fulfill customer orders faster. That means more customers and more human workers.

Sam Harnett covers tech and work and Queena Kim covers the intersection of technology and life in the Bay Area for member station KQED.

Copyright 2017 KQED

Sam Harnett
Queena Kim