What $700,000,000 could buy?

Recently Amazon committed $700 million to retrain its workforce for the automated age.

What will that much money buy? Probably a lot of overhyped and under-engaging online courses with cool sounding names. Yay!

If we’re honest, colorful online video lectures of 10min or less won’t convince many (or any) of Amazon’s 300,000 warehouse employees that they have futures in robotics or software engineering. Could $700 million buy something more? . . . .

Well, you’re on Chief Delphi in July so you can probably finish this post for me.

  1. Make up a competition (it could involve moving around boxes, or also fire)
  2. Make teams
  3. Make space (a small corner of each warehouse should be plenty)
  4. Build robots
  5. Have fun, learn stuff, and give out prizes

Bonus: invite in the huge community of people who already build robots, have fun, and teach the skills amazon employees really need. (surprisingly they work in exchange for free food and cool tools!)

I teach formal high school classes and Mentor FIRST and VEX teams. I honestly think this would be the most effective approach. If people aren’t inspired they probably won’t learn. FIRST does inspire, copy a model that works. What do you think?

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Of course, Bezos could just give all those frontline workers a raise to a living wage. That would let them determine for themselves what they might need to do to prepare for the future. But of course, that would cost him considerably more than $700 million (since that only works out to about $1400 per worker.)

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Bingo. So the question, assuming there is only $700 million available to spend, can society get more bang for the $700 million in a different way?

As automation increases, there will be less and less need for people who know how to “turn the crank” to get stuff done, and more and more need for people who know how to design new cranks.

The epic-level awesome employer might be able to the following:

  1. Provide opportunity
  1. Provide short-term incentive & goals
  • friendly competitions with deadlines
  • small recognition & awards
  1. Provide long-term incentive & goals
  • Provide clear avenues of improving employees’ own facilities operations with the new skills learned
  • Have processes & procedures in place to clearly demonstrate how new skills break through the “brick ceiling”.
  • Emphasis on how learned skills are “resumeable” both inside and outside the company.

Keep in mind though that not all employees are motivated the same way. For the vast majority of people I’ve worked with, a job is a way that they feed their families.

Not everyone will want to participate in such “knowledge expansion” programs. It’s a long-term-goal versus short-term-goal thinking. If you can feed your family today with your skillset - do you need to increase that skillset for the future? And even if you decide that you do, can you prioritize it over more immediate needs (which include spending time with said family)?

Encouraging learning on-the-clock is a good way to bridge the gap for folks with motivation but not time. However, you still need to find ways to reach the employees without the long-term motivation as well.

Though finding passion in your job is a beautiful thing, it can’t be expected of all employees. Solutions to job displacement from the Third Industrial Revolution must account for this.

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I know an ex-Amazon employee, and from what I’ve heard they’re more likely to institute a mandatory personal project and punish the lower performing half of the company.

80/20 time sounds amazing. I hope to work somewhere with an 80/20 policy at some point in my life.

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Super thoughtful reply @gerthworm. Bezos should higher you to administrate this program!

I endorse the concept of 80/20 and your point that people will buy in when new skills learned feedback directly into better job prospects.

Working adults should not be forced to stay over time (w/o compensation) to participate in the company-sponsored training program. At the same time re-training will necessarily require a significant individual effort (time and effort beyond the normal workday) because coding etc. is complicated and hard. Even if compensated, motivation will still be a big factor.

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Thanks for this inside scoop.

@BordomBeThyName punish the lower performing half of the company

From their own statement, Amazon plans to cut 200,000 jobs as part of this process. ouch

To be clear: this isn’t some specific plan that I heard about. I’ve just heard that they’re incredibly brutal to work for, and tend to be “all stick, no carrot.”

This is the myth of self determination. Individuals are poorly equipped to prepare themselves for a future that they know little about. 38% of Americans still believe that the world was created less than 10,000 years ago. Why would they understand how today’s world is changing? That’s why we have public education to have society guide the development of our workforce.

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Your preaching to the choir on this one, since I’m a public school teacher. I meant this in the sense that people who earn a living wage for a reasonable work week have the time to actually do other things to improve themselves, not simply do whatever Jeff Bezos thinks will be good for his company. Many of the Amazon workers are in low-level warehouse jobs and other areas where they are unlikely to have the background to be able to transition into being programmers or whatever else it is that Bezos wants for his automated future Amazon. The truth is that even Bezos doesn’t really know how the world might change, he’s just trying to force it to change it in a way that benefits himself (and his shareholders) while having no thought whatsoever as to whether this is really to the benefit of the people who work for him. If it is, that’s purely as a extra on the goal of making money for Jeff Bezos. As is pointed out above, he’s planning this automation (and attendant education) effort as a way to ditch 200,000 workers. Those people will be confronted with a rather blunt form of self-determination and be given no choice in the matter at all.

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…but, there is more than that to spend, around 15x that amount based on last year’s profit of $11 billion.

Raising wages and removing poverty stress would do far more for learning than any well meaning enrichment program.

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Keep in mind that wage increases cause an “every year” higher expense, while the $11b profit was a one year thing.

However, I don’t inherently disagree. Could large companies (like Amazon) afford to pay their employees a bit more? Likely yes.

How to cause it to happen? I’m not sure - companies don’t often have “maximize employee wages” as part of their mission & vision statement.

Even after a wage raise, I’d still want to address the knowledge gap that prevents upward job mobility. On-the-job methods have the distinct advantage of not requiring extra time commitments.

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While this doesn’t directly relate to the conversation, I just read this article yesterday by Joel Spolsky. While it was written in 2000 (and probably more than a little out of date), it gives an interesting perspective on “Amazon” type businesses vs “Ben and Jerry” type businesses. If you consider what he says from the context of the above thread, it’s pretty intriguing.

As for $700,000,000? Invest it all in FIRST by sponsoring a game!

Wait… nevermind, I don’t want to play recycle rush again…

A ■■■■ ton of zipties