Amazon’s hiring more humans, but robots are handling the holiday crush

Robots vs the temporary workers.
Robots vs the temporary workers.
Image: Reuters/Ralph D. Freso
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Amazon runs on robots. They sort, stock, scan, and ferry packages across cavernous warehouses with minimal human oversight. But when the holidays arrive, Amazon has always hired more than 100,000 humans to help back up its mechanical army of more than 100,000 robots spread across more than 175 fulfillment centers and package-sorting facilities worldwide.

That need has been falling in recent years, however, as Amazon has cut back on seasonal hires of package handlers, customer service agents, and operations managers. In the 2016 and 2017 holiday seasons, Amazon hired between 120,000 and 150,000 additional workers, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a job placement firm. In 2018, that fell to around 100,000. Citi analyst Mark May told CNBC last November that the installation of more robots in fulfillment centers corresponded with fewer and fewer workers hired around the holidays. Amazon hasn’t revealed its seasonal hiring plans so far this year. The company didn’t immediately respond to press inquiries.

But Amazon is still hiring—only this current surge appears to be less seasonal than in the past, reports business intelligence firm Thinknum Alternative Data. Overall, open postings across the company are up year-over-year. The number of job descriptions posted this year, 443, is 7% above to last year’s peak. Each one of those job postings represents thousands of potential full-time hires at fulfillment centers around the US. In September, the company announced it was hiring 30,000 new permanent positions.

But in a sign that many of these jobs are not for the holidays, relatively few mentions “seasonal” or “part-time.”  The share of postings with these words has not increased in step with the total number of job postings, reports Thinknum.

For “fulfillment” or “warehouse” workers, this was particularly true. The number of such job postings rose ten-fold to 359 from a low of 38 last year. Of those listings, only 158 included “seasonal” or “part-Time” in their titles.

While not definitive proof Amazon has begun shifting its labor force away from temporary seasonal workers toward permanent workers, it suggests changes are afoot for the labor force of the world’s largest online retailer.