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How Warehouse Robots Will Impact Industry Employment

The powerful rise of technological automation has brought about much speculation regarding how the job market will be impacted.

Whilst it still remains unclear just how many jobs will be replaced by automation and when a new study has analyzed something more immediately measurable: how are worker’s day-to-day jobs being affected by new technologies right now?

According to a recent report published by researchers at the University of Illinois, the technologies that are emerging aren’t going to replace a million US warehouse workers anytime in the near future. It may, however, make their working lives harder.

The report analyzed how technologies are increasingly modifying the daily work of warehouse employees who store, organize and package goods. It confirmed that technology can indeed help by reducing a worker’s physically strenuous and monotonous tasks, such as repetitively lifting heavy items. 

This boost of productivity, however, can also be hard on workers’ safety, health, and morale, putting them under increasing pressure to work faster, harder, and under more perceived scrutiny. And now, with Amazon introducing free one-day shipping, the pressure for competitive warehouses to keep up is even higher.

Stafford Sterner, President of SJF Material Handling Inc, says that warehouse workers are having to adapt rapidly to the rise of automation. “The next 10 years will not be so much about job losses as it will be about changes to warehouse job quality. Though advances in technology are designed to make life easier, it can result in warehouse workers being pushed harder, and this is something that needs to be addressed.” 

The Warehousing Industry

The warehousing industry focuses on the storage and flow of physical goods. This includes receiving and sorting shipments, packing them, and distributing them to retails stores or consumers. 

The industry employs more than a million workers in the US alone, with that figure rising steadily over the last few years largely due to the increase in e-commerce demand – particularly in the age of COVID-19. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the industry’s employment will continue growing by more than 20% by 2026.

Despite the boom in e-commerce, warehouse workers have seen a drop in wages since 2001, with today’s median hourly wage ranging between approximately $13 – $17 per hour. Even though workers in this sector are twice as likely to suffer a work-related injury, the gains of the boom are not being shared with the warehouse floor staff.

The Paradox of Technological Advancements

Whilst new technology can make life easier for warehouse workers, it can also intensify it in several ways. Firstly, it limits human interaction, eroding working relationships and comradery. Secondly, it fosters a climate of micromanagement at an unprecedented and sometimes ludicrous scale.

This is because some new machines can track and analyze a worker’s every move — like sensors that can measure how long it takes a worker to arrive at a location, collect an item, scan it, select a product and distribute it in a sorting bin. Such sensors are linked to warehouse management systems that analyze and inform upon a worker’s performance and compare them to colleagues, resulting in the setting of even more aggressive performance goals.

All of this might increase productivity in the short term, but may very well have workers run into the ground eventually. The gains of productivity and cost-cutting could be outweighed by increased employee turnover as a result of burnout.

There is also the question of data privacy and whether it is ethical to collect and use such data, especially as the result of it being fed to the AI behind the warehouse automation could effectively mean that these workers are unwittingly informing and training their own replacements.

Some Advantages to Consider

As robots take over the monotonous aspects of the job, warehouse workers have the opportunity to learn new skills that could lead to higher-paid employment. 

For example, learning how to manage and maintain a warehouse robot on the factory floor could result in a career path more secure than physical warehouse labor. This could protect them from the risk of becoming redundant on physical grounds and could also allow them to move into areas more stimulating than repetitive, mundane tasks. 

It is essential for the industry to carefully consider how best to support warehouse workers through these unprecedented transitions and find ways to evolve their roles to keep up with the technological advancements. Currently, the effect upon the quality of warehouse employment is of much greater concern to industry professionals than the threat of mass job losses.

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Written by Luke Fitzpatrick

Luke Fitzpatrick is an academic speaker at Sydney University. He enjoys writing about tech, productivity, lifestyle, and is a contributor to Forbes.

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