Last week, the NYTimes published a lengthy article on working conditions at Amazon warehouses. While the treatment of Amazon’s hourly workers is likely no surprise to anyone halfway paying attention, the piece was revealing across several dimensions.
The sheer size of the Amazon workforce is staggering. Close to a million people now work for Amazon, most of whom work in fulfillment warehouses. During one three-month stretch of the pandemic, Amazon hired more than 350,000 workers.
What is striking is how quickly Amazon chews through workers. The turnover rate for hourly employees at Amazon is 150 percent, meaning that Amazon replaces the equivalent of its entire hourly workforce every eight months. The reasons why Amazon workers leave are well known. The job of picking items and packing boxes is incredibly stressful. Amazon minutely tracks the performance of its works, with this surveillance naturally leading to worker stress.
Amazon’s employee attrition is designed into its system. Turnover for Amazon, and Jeff Bezos, is more of a feature than a bug. Amazon seems to provide few opportunities for worker advancement from hourly to professional employment. From the NYTimes article,
Amazon’s founder didn’t want hourly workers to stick around for long, viewing “a large, disgruntled” workforce as a threat, Mr. Niekerk recalled. Company data showed that most employees became less eager over time, he said, and Mr. Bezos believed that people were inherently lazy. “What he would say is that our nature as humans is to expend as little energy as possible to get what we want or need.” That conviction was embedded throughout the business, from the ease of instant ordering to the pervasive use of data to get the most out of employees.
So guaranteed wage increases stopped after three years, and Amazon provided incentives for low-skilled employees to leave.
How might academia respond to this NYTimes article on The Amazon That Customers Don’t See?
Perhaps a bit of soul searching is in order.
Jeff Bezos graduated from Princeton in 1986. He is a product of elite higher education.
Certainly, we can’t blame Princeton, or the elite higher education system in general, for Bezos’ views on the disposableness of workers. All sorts of people get bad ideas from great schools.
But I do think we need to ask what we are teaching our students today?
How consistent is higher education emphasizing issues of inequality, concentrated wealth, and stratification across the curriculum?
To what degree might an electrical engineering and computer science major (what Bezos studied) receive a liberal arts education that includes some history on the American labor movement?
We need to ask if Bezos’ views on workers - as manifested by how Amazon has designed its workforce policies - are aligned or opposed to the values of our institutions.
From a purely business and financial perspective, Amazon’s policies towards its workers seem to be deeply counterproductive. Compare how Amazon treats its hourly workers to Costco. The turnover rate at Costco is only 13 percent and falls to less than 7 percent for employees with more than one year on the job.
One reason Costco has such a great brand is that it is known as a company that treats its workers well.
In higher ed, we love to take credit for the accomplishments of our graduates.
We should be equally willing to take some responsibility for when our graduates act in ways that do not align with our values.
In the case of Amazon, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate what we teach when we teach about what success means for business.