business news in context, analysis with attitude

We referenced a Star Tribune story the other day mentioning that “worldwide, Amazon has installed more than 200,000 robots.”

The story went on:

“Not everybody says this is a good thing: “Fear among workers is palpable. A survey by the Pew Research Center found that roughly half (48%) of respondents said the (robotics) advances have mostly hurt American workers; only 22% said they have generally helped.

“A fully automated shipping warehouse is at least a decade away, Amazon officials have said, but the company already is planning for a time when it will need fewer people to run its warehouses. Earlier this month, Amazon announced that it would set aside $700 million between now and 2025 to ‘upskill’ or retrain up to a third of its U.S. workforce — as many as 100,000 workers.”

Prompting MNB reader Dan Jones to write:

As I recall, MNB featured John Oliver's piece about the challenging work environment for Amazon workers in warehouses.  So the work is bad for humans, and augmenting warehouse work with robots is also bad.

Amazon cannot win in the press - but they keep winning customers with superior products and service.

First time in a while that I’ve been accused of being too mean to Amazon. Usually, I get the opposite.

Got the following email about our stories regarding worsening trucker shortages:

Your reference to Bloomberg’s article on the trucking industry - similar to the past several but, perhaps not 100% accurate or at the very least murky. C.H. Robinson is out with the opinion that trucking for the rest of this year will be softer than expected - and a potential drag on profits. Many factors - most of which are short to mid-term while the driver shortage is indeed a longer term concern.

From another reader:

Continuing the conversation today about the truck driver shortage, specifically the reader who said that we should be promoting it in the schools, it seems absurd to suggest that young people should be encouraged to devote their lives to the profession. My husband just got his CDL in order to load trucks for his company, but it is obvious to both of us that even if he decided to drive full-time that he couldn’t make a 30 year long career out of it. Why would anyone want to be promoting a dying career path to students in need? Drive for a year or two to make $70K and pay off some debt? Absolutely! We’ve read on MNB so many times about Uber or Walmart or Amazon investing tons of money on self-driving cars. It’s amazing to me how so many people look at those investments and don’t understand that self-driving trucks are going to be the first thing on the road once the technology is ready, and I’d be willing to bet that the technology is going to be ready sooner than a lot of people believe.

MNB reader John Rand wrote:

For background I retired a couple of  years ago, and fulfilled a long term desire to just knock around the country a little bit. Bought a class A Winnebago RV, and each of the last two years I have both avoided winter in New England and broadened my appreciation for our country, especially in the Southwest.  I have been traveling solo, and I like meeting people.

When you clock some long miles in a good size rig (mine is 28 feet)  you easily meet truckers if you want to. I have spent evenings and mornings in highway rest areas, in Walmart parking lots, in pullouts and truck stops. I have met single guys and gals, long haul and short haul, couples and team drivers, independents and corporate drivers.  It is an often over-looked slice of America and I make no claim to knowing everything about it but I will make an observation: this is a tough and underappreciated way to make a living.
Truckers work under a whole set of rules designed to improve safety, which compete heavily with the pressure to move faster, farther, and fulfill contracts. Truckers share the road with auto drivers who generally give them no courtesy and who seem utterly ignorant of the laws of physics. In most states truckers have very few easy options to pull off the road, take a break, get some rest (often mandated by regulation). Convenient roadside truck stops and rest areas are often few and far between, completely inadequate compared to the number of vehicles.
Not everyone is willing to take a job where you might have to wait hours for a bathroom, take a number and wait for a shower in a truck stop, sleep in a parking lot.  Few of us would want to push through rain and darkness, sleet and snow, over poorly maintained roads to avoid a penalty for a late delivery or to keep a contract for a load that has to be picked up by morning no matter what, or get penalized because some retailer scheduled you at the loading dock ten minutes ago and now you have to pay a late fine out of your pocket or perhaps risk losing your job as a company driver. And if you arrive early, where you do park for a few hours?
Sure, better pay would help, but the working conditions are a function of the fabled “infrastructure” of America – which is at least 30 or more years behind the conditions of today.  These folks live in a different, parallel world from everyone else, always moving, anonymous, hustling to make a living, usually  far from home and family and strangers everywhere they go to everyone but each other.
It’s not easy.  I am not surprised there aren’t enough drivers.

We took note the other day of a CNN report that Amazon will disable its entire Dash button network on August 31, ending a replenishment technology that it introduced in 2015. Earlier this year it has said it would stop issuing new buttons to consumers … Amazon had said that even though it was ending the Dash button program, believing that it made more sense to push consumers to replenish products via its Alexa voice assistant system, it would continue supporting the Dash buttons as long as people used them.

I commented:

This means one of two things. Either Amazon got impatient about moving people into voice-driven replenishment and decided to act precipitously, or people just weren’t using the buttons and it believes that ending the program wouldn’t raise any hackles. I suspect it was the latter.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with stepping away from a business model that, even though you’ve pretty much created it, has grown to be pretty much obsolete. In fact, that willingness to kill its young is an Amazon hallmark - it doesn’t allow itself to become so emotionally connected to anything that it cannot walk away at the right time.

Which is a pretty good business lesson.

One MNB reader responded:

While you may be correct I believe there is a much more practical business decision. It’s impossible to switch a consumer to different brands, generating advertising, or more importantly to Amazon their private label.

True enough. Didn’t think of that.
KC's View: