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Peoplevox Updates

Are warehouse robots destroying jobs? A realistic view

Will Grove
  • 23 February 2018
  • 4 min read

At a glance:

  • Some believe that robots will wipe out at least a third of warehousing jobs...
  • ...while those working on the ground remain relatively disaffected according to a new NPR/Marist poll
  • The truth lies somewhere inbetween - robotics shouldn't be seen as something that will destroy employment, rather as something that will enhance the capabilities of existing and incoming warehouse staff

When it comes to the future of warehousing employment, there are two very different stories being told. The first is one of massive job losses, and the second of minimal change. Here are two headlines from recent weeks which show just how disparate these two different positions are.

At the end of January, The Guardian declared that “Automation [will] take 1 in 3 warehousing jobs in UK’s northern centres”. The article was based on a report by The Centre for Cities which predicts that almost one-third of the jobs in the Nottinghamshire town of Mansfield, near Sports Direct’s main fulfilment base are involved in lines of work under threat as robots begin to replace humans in the years up to 2030. It explains that the jobs at most risk of replacement include those in retail sales, customer services, administration and the warehouse.

So that’s the future view, one that’s not just shared in the UK but internationally as well. It’s a position that’s based on absolutes: robotics will rise, humans will be replaced and the times, they are a’changing.

How many warehousing jobs will automation actually wipe out?

Then there’s the view from the other end of the spectrum, from the position of looking at what the reality of innovation in a warehouse will look like from the position of the people who see how fast change can be enacted in their workplace, who understand the day to day responsibilities of getting fulfilment right.

A recent NPR/Marist poll revealed that 94% of U.S. warehouse workers believe that “it's unlikely they will lose jobs to automation.” Although the article tends to lean on anecdotal evidence (like the sigh and pause given when a warehouse worker explains about his job that “I don’t think a robot could do this”), it does shine a light on how the robotics in use at the most cutting-edge retailers is currently sitting alongside their human counterparts. Amazon, with its 25+ robotics fulfilment centres, is “perpetually on a hiring spree...these fulfillment centers employ 2,000 to 4,000 full-time hourly associates.”

Taking a realistic view to the near-term impact of automation

We believe that the truth, for the majority of warehouses, will lie somewhere in between both extremes. Will there be job losses? Yes, eventually. But, for the foreseeable future, the main story about warehousing automation isn’t one that’s focused on robots taking the baton from their human predecessors. The main story here is about how automation - with regards to both software and hardware - will help to enhance the capabilities of warehouse staff.

There is no immediate cull of warehouse employees on the horizon. The demand for e-commerce is rising. And the investability of a lot of robotics is still on very shaky ground; the vast amount of companies don’t have the massive budgets of Amazon or AliBaba to play around with. Which means that, realistically, more ground staff are going to be needed in the near future; something that Everything5Pounds COO Robert Kulawik expressed concern for last year, explaining that “here is not sufficient labour around... The fact that Brexit is a yes scared a lot of European migrants from coming.”

Which is where automation can come in incredibly useful. Arm warehouse staff with technology that can deliver on ROI, can speed up the fulfilment process and can guarantee accurate deliveries and you’ve fostered a perfect environment for growth.

Next week, we’re launching our new whitepaper titled ‘Will robotics wipe out warehousing jobs?’ Over 22 pages, it goes into great detail about exactly how the rise of automation will impact every role within the warehouse. The truth about how roles are going to change in the warehouse isn’t one that has a bigger picture; it’s one of nuance, of individual functions that are ripe for development.

It explains expected developments for each warehousing role in the near future, detailing the areas where physical robotics will take complete control...and where software automation makes far more financial sense. Check back here next week to get your copy. 



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