Magazine | September 10, 2018, Issue

‘Fulfillment’

An Amazon fulfillment center (Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images)
Life on the SLAM line at the everything store.

Columbus, Ohio

Outside, it’s America. The name “Ohio” may be synonymous with postindustrial Rust Belt gritty Trump-voting angst rage and despair, but you don’t see a whole hell of a lot of that in and around the cheery and well-scrubbed precincts of this city, which in the manner of pretty much all of your typical state capitals and college towns is shielded from the worst gyrations of Capital in the 21st Century by the fat salaries and generous benefits enjoyed by the shiny happy public- to semi-public-sector professional class thanks to the hard-got tax dollars of working-stiff blue-collar types out there somewhere in the godforsaken Ohio bush, and in fact it’s all pretty clean and optimistic and bustling as you fly into John By-God Glenn American Goddamned Hero International Airport on a fine summer day. It’s America out there, land of dudes with flat-mown bro beards riding big new Harley-Davidson baggers (soon to be Made in Euroweenieland!) in cargo shorts and boat shoes with no apparent fear of the asphalt gliding by their naked knees at 62 mph, girls in Ray-Ban aviators driving convertible Mustangs (the only actual car the faceless intercontinental corporate behemoth still bearing the name of Henry Ford will continue to make in these United States of America), glistening in the buggy high-June heat, idling in a CO2-intensive fashion on formerly quiet suburban lanes clogged by endless traffic way beyond whatever they were designed to handle as the regular schmucks who have never heard about the New Urbanism or Le Corbusier or anything like that continue their relentless march away from the city centers toward bland exurban homes in weird little knots of sidewalkless development where the long thin front yards run right up to the asphalt, everybody seeking Fulfillment on a quarter-acre with three bedrooms and Corian countertops. Between the city and exurbia is the yoga-pantsed polite affluent monotony of Soviet Starbuckistan, those swollen little Lexus mini-SUVs in tasteful neutral colors (seriously — what happened to all the red cars?) gliding past Macy’s Nordstrom Sephora Texas de Brazil Old Navy the obligatory retro barbershop Saks Off Fifth Container Store Petco Golf Galaxy Field & Stream Dick’s Costco and then again no kidding Macy’s Field & Stream and Dick’s all over again, the great expanse of Mr. Jefferson’s Continental Empire of Liberty condensed and contracted here in the BobTaftian heartland into a retail landscape as sterile and endlessly repetitious as a Philip Glass opera. 

It’s easy to forget about Columbus, a city so average and median and featureless and devoid of local eccentricity — cleverly subverting the paradox of perfect averageness, it prides itself on being the fourth-most-average American city in terms of age and ethnic makeup — that its boosters brag about its status as “Test Market USA,” the proving grounds for (these are true facts) the McRib, the Wendy’s pretzel burger, and the Taco Bell spicy Doritos Locos Taco. “We decide the fate of cheeseburgers and presidents here in Columbus,” the head of a local trade group boasted in the New York Times. (Another variety of Fulfillment.) It may be bland, but it’s booming: Columbus is in fact the fourth-fastest-growing city in the United States. Only Indianapolis stands between Test Market USA and the Fulfillment of its dream of becoming the second-largest city in the Midwest. 

Somewhere out there, Fulfillment awaits.

You pass a Panera and a Panera and a Panera, until it thins out. And then, after a goodly stretch of the semirural Ohio of dark green fields, the One Purpose Community Church and the Modern Trailer Park, you see it. Not exactly a beacon, but a sign on the outskirts of the not obviously volcanic or Sicilian village of Etna, pointing the way toward the low-slung tilt-wall construction of the New American Dream that curiously bears a mythically Greek name: Amazon Fulfillment

Matt Smith, who runs the sprawling Amazon Fulfillment center in Etna, about 20 miles from Columbus proper, has had a lot of jobs in his life, but only two employers: the United States Air Force, where he traveled the world managing maintenance-and-repair operations for aircraft, and Amazon. He’s a company man with the familiar all-American get-sh**-done all-business-all-day managerial demeanor and the aggressively proper manners of the U.S. military, and he speaks earnestly, and maybe even a little reverently, about “Amazon’s Peculiar Ways” — a phrase that, to be clear, is capitalized in little motivational signs around the facility, and there’s a peculiar mascot called “Pecky” (not to be confused with Pecky the Rehab Chicken) who appears on pins worn by employees here, which is, in fact, damned peculiar — those “peculiar ways” being the sincere if slightly culty ways Amazon talks about and cultivates its internal institutional culture. Amazon hosts seminars on “Amazon’s Peculiar Ways” for young professionals and business groups, and Smith is steeped in that gospel, citing the company’s “Bias for Action” as the foundation for keeping the packages moving through the little citadel under his direction.

About that citadel: It’s a big, cavernous, multilevel space, one of those places where they give you its dimensions in the One True American Metric System, that being multiples of football fields (about 28 in this case), and there are miles of conveyor belts, more than 1 million square feet of working space, and it’s full of robots, thousands of them, little runty orange Roomba-looking things that would not look entirely out of place on the Death Star as they shuffle around the “pod forest,” moving big towers of goods in pursuit of what Smith describes as “ideal inventory placement.”

Fulfillment at work, on an industrial scale.

Amazon at large employs more than 100,000 robots, a bunch of them here in Etna. Kiva Systems, a robotics company that developed an inventory system once used by companies ranging from the Gap and Saks Fifth Avenue to Walgreens and Staples, designed Amazon’s robots, and Amazon liked them so much that it did what Amazon does and bought the company, which is now Amazon Robotics. The Gap etc. had to find new robot suppliers when their contracts ran out. There’s something kind of quietly and gently ruthless about Amazon — Jeff Bezos (peace be upon him) could be a kinder, gentler Lex Luthor — and the Etna facility, with its smiley-face-yellow inventory trays and its smiley-face-yellow guardrails and its smiley-face-yellow columns holding up the roof, does not scream “You will be assimilated! Resistance is futile!” but it does kind of whisper it.

But ain’t nobody complaining about the paychecks.

Amazon employs about 5,000 people in Ohio, most of them at the Etna facility, and last summer it put up a great big “Help Wanted” sign and announced it was looking to hire 1,000 more people in Etna, population 16,373. Amazon hires people the way the Moonies marry them, and they come from all over. When a new class of associates arrives, the company is known to roll out a welcome carpet in Amazon colors and hire high-school marching bands to play.

“Ohio is great for us,” Smith says. “From Ohio, we can serve both the Midwest and the Northeast. We get great local support.” Amazon is among the largest employers in Ohio, and in many of the towns hosting its fulfillment centers it is the largest single employer. That gives it a lot of leverage. When Amazon got ready to open the Etna center, there were the usual concerns about disruptions from construction and wear and tear on the roads from the gigantic fleet of trucks going in and out of the facility every day. Smith acknowledges that there are externalities associated with the operations of his million-square-foot empire. But a thousand jobs buys a company a lot of good will, and Amazon (market capitalization just over $900 billion as of this writing, and probably on its way to $1 trillion) can afford to treat its workers and its host communities pretty well. Eighteen or twenty bucks an hour — “and benefits from Day One,” as at least three different Amazonians emphasize in the same words — goes a pretty good ways in and around this area, where you can buy a modest but decent house for around $100,000. Amazon has a classroom where employees can take college courses, including studies to prepare them for jobs other than working at an Amazon Fulfillment center. They’ve just finished up classes for employees who want to become pharmacy techs.

The employees hustle and hustle. Making rate is what this is all about. Amazon managers like to say their employees treat every package like it’s somebody’s Christmas present, and Christmas is . . . now. At peak holiday capacity, the Etna facility can move a million packages in and out on the same day, the majority of them coming from Amazon sort centers, little substations in the vast network of Fulfillment. Amazon employees are not much inclined to complain in front of their bosses, but away from executive oversight they do not complain very much, either. They do complain about making rate and the pressure they feel, about mandatory overtime, and they intimate occasionally that the little orange guys scurrying around on the floor are not the only ones who are treated like robots. Some complain that the facility is so large that they spend most of their breaks walking to and from the break room. But few of them say they’re looking for other employment. They want to move up at Amazon.

“Look, this is a warehouse job,” Smith says. “There’s nothing I can do about that. The nature of the work is what it is. But we can make it a great place to work.” Life on the line at Amazon is, of course, repetitive. Everything that can be automated is automated. Algorithms figure out what order to move the inventory in, and computers decide what kind of box best suits each order. (If you buy six or seven things on Amazon at once, your order might come from a couple of different places, which is why sometimes it’s all in one box and sometimes it isn’t.) Every item has a unique identifier that links it to an order — there are no names on the orders until the very end, since Amazon (which sells sex toys and bondage gear along with laundry soap and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) seeks to protect customers’ privacy — and displays at every employee station show what each item is supposed to look like as workers grab it and put it into a box. Even the tape that goes on the box is automatically measured and cut to length. The employees mostly move items from inventory trays into delivery boxes, visually confirming that each thing is what it is supposed to be. Even the things that are supposed to be fun and motivational have a slightly Pavlovian flavor to them: Fulfillment rates are calculated in real time, and those data are compiled and displayed in the form of a racetrack video game, with the different floors in the Fulfillment center competing against one another. (Today, the third floor is in the lead.) It’s like Gran Turismo Sport for inventory management, competitive Fulfillment for long shifts starting in the early morning.

“They don’t have to play that,” Smith says. “But it’s fun.”

An associate passes by, wearing a Pecky pin.

Whoosh, click, whoosh, click, whoosh, clickmaking rate.

And then it’s off to the SLAM line.

“This is cool,” Smith says. “We call it the SLAM line, which stands for ‘Shipping Label and Mailing.’ This is the first time a name is associated with an order. But there’s no slamming.” Instead, an air cannon comes down and stops just short of the surface of each box and then blows the label onto it, so there’s no squishing anything. “We are obsessed with our customers,” Smith says. “Customer Obsession” is in fact No. 1 on Amazon’s list of its Peculiar Ways.

Fulfillment.

One peculiar thing is that the people who work directly with the robots are called “amnesty associates.” Justin Myers is one. Before Amazon, he worked mostly in a variety of retail and fast-food jobs, including stints at Wendy’s and Chipotle. He seems like the kind of guy who might very well have started a company like Amazon. I ask him how long he has been in the Fulfillment business, and he answers precisely: “One year and ten days.” He tends to anthropomorphize the robots (“Sometimes, they don’t want to hear what we have to say, and they decide they need to take a break”) and is a lifelong technology enthusiast and tinkerer, having built his own computers when he was a kid and put together homemade robots. And then there was the hovercraft. “I made my own hovercraft when I was ten, with a leaf-blower and things in my garage,” he says. “It did not run very long. I ran into a neighbor’s bush.” Myers works in the pod forest, the quiet back end of the operation where worldly goods rest in tall yellow towers awaiting Fulfillment. “It’s really quiet, really peaceful back there,” he says. “It’s surreal, almost, to go from an environment that has people running around doing stuff to one of the quietest places.”

Amazon’s robots are a little more sophisticated than the ones he built as a child. “It’s a dance, watching them speed on by, watching them navigate around each other, around the pod forest. It’s like a seventh-grade dance, where they come near but don’t touch.” He drives an hour to work to officially begin his day at 7:30 a.m. He’s hoping to stay with Amazon and move up to the main corporate offices one day. But he’s not unhappy where he is. “It’s the best job I’ve had so far.”

There’s a science-fiction feel to some of this, with the robots and all, but the work environment here isn’t so much Jetsons as Japanese. Matt Smith, the director of operations, leads a group of employees in a (voluntary) morning run, in much the same way that many Japanese firms organize exercise sessions for their employees during the workday. (Honda was an early innovator, but today these sessions are so common that there is a radio station dedicated to nothing but broadcasting calisthenics routines.) Smith mentions kaizen, the Japanese business philosophy of “continual improvement.” Amazon is big on kaizen. For Amazon, that’s part of the “Customer Obsession,” with Jeff Bezos insisting that customers will not pay for waste and cannot be expected to. (Lean operations are of course good for profit, too, but Amazon and its shareholders have shown themselves willing to accept relatively low profit margins, mystifying a great many Wall Street analysts so attuned to quarter-by-quarter management that they cannot understand Amazon’s long game, even as plain as Amazon is about it.) Employee complaints tend to focus on that cog-in-the-machine theme. Amazon is a flexible employer — within limits. But get on the wrong side of that kaizen math — e.g., by taking some unscheduled time off in December, when Amazon is at DefCon 1 — and you’ll encounter the less cuddly side of Amazon.

This is an old and familiar story. There is a beloved myth that Henry Ford decided to pay his workers more generously on the theory that he stood to gain if they could afford to buy his cars. There isn’t an atom of truth to that, in fact. One of Ford’s great problems was employee turnover. For all of today’s sentimental talk about “good factory jobs,” turning a wrench or bolting on wheels in a 20th-century automobile factory was fairly awful work. It was repetitive and monotonous, rote but dangerous enough that it required concentration, exhausting, and boring. Henry Ford raised his wages because he couldn’t get — and, more important, keep — good workers at rates comparable to those for other blue-collar jobs of his time.

Fulfillment is the new factory job. It isn’t awful, but it isn’t easy. It’s not a Bangladeshi sweatshop, but there are long hours, with lots of standing, lots of walking, lots of lifting, lots of noise, and lots of pressure to make rate. But ask the Amazonians in Etna what they think their next-best employment option is and the answer you’ll most often get is: another warehouse job that doesn’t pay as well at a company that doesn’t have Amazon’s sometimes overbearing but generally sincere commitment to satisfy its customer obsession by making the best use of its people.

Shalonda Brashear, recently promoted from process assistant to area manager, has a long day. She arrives at work at 6:30 a.m. for a 7 a.m. shift and will stay until 5:30 p.m. She’s been at Amazon three and a half years and has made a short significant journey along a well-trod path, transferring from Elizabethtown, Ky., to Ohio for a better job. She had been the director of a child-care program, and at Amazon she is a manager of people. When an employee comes in needing something — from taking the day off to dealing with a nonfunctioning work station — Brashear is the first stop. She speaks fluent Amazonian, describing her job as “lots of engagement with associates, providing that support.” She praises Amazon for its medical benefits and time-off options. “When I needed those, they supported me in every possible way,” she says. A year or two down the line, she hopes, she’ll be an operations manager, a job listed at Glassdoor and Indeed as paying more than $100,000 a year.

Amazon hires a lot of engineers and software nerds and MBAs and such. But Amazon moves real goods in the real world, meaning it also needs people who do real labor. From the company’s job postings: “Fort Worth: Basic Qualifica­tions: High-school diploma or equivalent; able to work all days and shifts, including overtime; blueprint and electrical schematic reading; Preferred Qualifications: Degree from vocational school or college with focus in the mechanical or electrical field; 2+ years apprenticeship or equivalent experience in the mechanical or electrical field; Experience with Material Handling Equipment safety standards.” Or: “Hebron, Kentucky: Preferred Qualifications: 2+ years commercial driving experience in a vehicle of similar size, weight, and controls as a terminal tractor and proficiency in backing trailers into dock doors and parking slips.” And if you’re wondering how the four-year college degree is currently valued: “Shawnee, Kansas: Bachelor’s degree or 2+ years Amazon experience.”

This is Silicon Valley’s back of the shop. Walk around the parking lot and you’ll see a few employees gathered around the Cheezy Street food truck, and the most expensive car you’ll see is a decked-out Ford pickup truck. There aren’t any Teslas here. There are some six-figure salaries to be had in Fulfillment, but, for the most part, the people working here aren’t getting rich. What they are doing is earning a pretty good wage and more-than-decent benefits doing very hard work for a very demanding company that rewards those who fit into its “peculiar” version of American enterprise. For those who don’t . . .

It is a peculiar place, with its own strange internal geography: Items that have been banged around too much to be suitable for Fulfillment are sent away to a purgatory called “Damageland.” Employees — “associates” in the inevitable corporatespeak — are graded on a point system: demerits, basically. Get too many and you’re damaged goods, too. Amazonians may sometimes find themselves unhappy with their schedules or displeased with supervisors, who sometimes treat them just a little bit like the robots roaming the pod forest, but they don’t complain that the rules aren’t clear.

And that’s the thing, really. These modern blue-collar jobs at Amazon — and in the back end of the rest of the high-tech world, from guys doing the maintenance at Google’s server farms to guys driving forklifts in the warehouses of high-tech midwestern chemical companies — aren’t really all that different from the factory jobs our fathers and grandfathers worked back during the so-called golden age of American manufacturing, which, if you look into it a little bit, wasn’t really all that golden at all. Some of the associates at Etna were working at Chipotle or Home Depot before they came to Amazon, but some of them were in neurological consulting. They come from a wide array of educational backgrounds, which shines a great bright light on the ass-backwardness of the American higher-education system as it relates to the relationship between school and work. There are lots of people who go to college for purely intellectual and social reasons, majoring in art history or sociology or English with no intention of becoming art historians or sociologists or roving correspondents for political magazines. But there are also people who go to college because they want to get a good job and they think that college is the way to do that. And sometimes it is: If you want to be an accountant or a lawyer or a physician, there’s a lot of prefatory education you’ll need to complete. But for those with more industrial ambitions, for the all-American get-sh**-done all-business types who might rise through the ranks of Amazon’s vast and complex ecosystem of Fulfillment, we get the timeline all backward: It would make far more sense for them to start working these jobs when they are 17 or 18 years old and then figure out what they’re interested in and what kind of additional education might be needful. Because running a maintenance operation for Amazon doesn’t mean just knowing how to fix a wonky bay door, it means — quoting from a job listing here — “experience with a Computerized Maintenance Management System,” whatever that is. No 18-year-olds — and not very many college seniors — get up in the morning knowing that they need to know about that. Things move fast in the 21st century, and it’s not clear that we can really educate young people into the best blue-collar jobs — rather, it will take getting them into entry-level jobs at places like Amazon to reveal what it is they need to learn. “I’m trying to become an area manager,” says Christian Larkin, a young associate with a year on the job who is wearing a Pecky pin. “That means learning every possible process path, learning the associate’s life, and getting used to Amazon life.” He used to work in a hospital. “This is less stress.”

Is it Fulfillment? It’s a start.

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