Amazon announced Thursday that it will spend up to $700 million over the next six years retraining 100,000 of its US employees, mostly in technical skills like software engineering and IT support. Amazon is already one of the largest employers in the country, with almost 300,000 workers (and many more contractors) and it’s particularly hungry for more new talent. The company currently has more than 20,000 vacant US roles, over half of which are at its headquarters in Seattle. Meanwhile, the US economy is booming, and there are now more open jobs than there are unemployed people who can fill them, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“The purpose isn’t really to create a job ladder from fulfillment center to CEO, but rather to meet employees where they are and to create opportunities for them to build on the skills that they have,” Ardine Williams, Amazon’s vice president of workforce development, said in an interview Thursday morning.
Amazon joins a number of other companies who have announced multimillion-dollar investments in retraining in recent years, as a tightening labor market and technological change forces businesses to evolve. Amazon has already spent thousands of dollars on worker retraining in its Career Choice program, which helps hourly associates pay for degree programs in other, high-demand fields. CEO Jeff Bezos said in a shareholder letter last year that more than 12,000 US employees have participated in the program since it began in 2012. Amazon said they will expand the program Thursday.
In addition, some of Amazon’s new retraining initiatives include: Associate2Tech, a 90-day program for warehouse workers who want to learn IT skills; Amazon Technical Academy, a coding bootcamp designed to transition corporate non-technical employees into software engineering roles; and Machine Learning University, for engineers who already have a background in technology and want to learn machine learning and AI skills. Noticeably absent are programs that would specifically prepare Amazon’s workforce for climate change and the shifting energy landscape.
When asked about training for new energy roles, Williams said she wasn’t aware of any Amazon education program that would address climate change jobs, at least not at this point. “I don’t know that. In the programs that we build, we build them as we have demand for skills internally,” Williams said. “I suspect that over time there will be skills associated with [climate change] that could be included in the program.”
Thousands of Amazon’s own employees have criticized the company in recent months for courting the business of oil and gas companies and failing to take substantial action to combat climate change. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that some of the fastest growing occupations over the next seven years will include solar panel installers and wind turbine technicians, though the overall number of jobs in these fields are projected to be relatively small.
The retraining programs also arrive as Amazon continues to ramp up automation efforts in its fulfillment centers. While executives tend to say they love the efficiency and cost-cutting benefits of automation, 76 percent of Americans say inequality between the rich and the poor would increase if robots and computers perform most of the jobs done by humans by 2050, according to a Pew Research Center study published in December. Only around a third of respondents said they believed widespread automation would create many new, better-paying jobs for humans. (Economists have been more divided over automation’s impact.) Against that backdrop, Amazon’s jobs skills efforts provide some reassurance that—in theory at least—you could be retrained into a new role when the robots arrive.
Labor activists and lawmakers have criticized Amazon for years over how the company treats its employees, particularly those in warehouses and fulfillment centers. Last year, Senator Bernie Sanders introduced the Stop BEZOS Act, which would have taxed companies whose employees receive certain government benefits, like food stamps—as hundreds of Amazon workers reportedly did. Since then, Amazon has raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour, more than double the current federal minimum wage of $7.25. However, some of its workers still remain unhappy with Amazon’s working conditions. Fulfillment center employees in Minnesota are planning to strike during the company’s annual Prime Day sales day next week, which will mark the first time US workers have walked out during the event.
Thursday’s announcement is a shrewd way for Amazon to bolster its image as a positive force in American workers’ lives, but it remains to be seen how viable the retraining programs will be in practice. Similar efforts by the federal government, for example, have failed to be effective.
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