Last week my son Leo asked what might be considered an existential question of e-commerce: Is Jeff Bezos wealthy enough to buy one of every item for sale on Amazon? One search revealed that the world’s wealthiest person can easily afford to buy every item in inventory at his company’s warehouses (easily, as in 10 times over). But that’s not the same as one of every item for sale. Amazon has an inventory of about 12 million items, but 350 million items listed on the site, which explains why – unlike the fancy French restaurant Mr. Creosote shambles into in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life – Amazon doesn’t have a “one of everything button” for indecisive customers (and why you can’t get it “all mixed up together in a bucket”).
Like no prior Christmas, ‘tis the season of Amazon. Christmases past have been scarred – at least according to Fox News – by the so-called War on Christmas. If there is such a war, the decisive battle will be fought when the ease of online shopping and package delivery overwhelms the holiday, when a cataclysm of cardboard makes it hard to see the tree or “stockings hung by the chimney with care,” and when the classic poem is revised:
I heard Bezos exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—
“Happy Amazon to all, and to all a good night!”
Of course, Covid Christmas only bears a passing resemblance to Christmases past because frontline workers are powering America through the pandemic. So far this year, Amazon has hired nearly 500,000 new workers, the vast majority warehouse team members, picking, packing, and sorting orders for shipment. According to Brookings, there are about 50M jobs that only can be done by showing up and interacting in real-viral-time with co-workers and customers – almost exactly 1/3 of all jobs. So while 2/3 of us sit more-or-less safely at home, the other third – including workers in healthcare, manufacturing, and Amazon warehouses – have been risking their health in order to pay rent and put food on the table. And among frontline workers, they’re the lucky ones; 10M from food service, retail, and travel are newly unemployed and struggling with rent and food.
The situation seems redolent of revolution. Perhaps the only thing stopping a new American Revolution is the American Dream – that toil will be rewarded with upward social mobility. But Brookings’ new Mobility Pathways tool provides evidence of what we all know to be true: unsustainably low mobility for the vast majority of frontline jobs. As Brookings notes, frontline job do not have clear “pathways into occupations that have added jobs” during Covid.
Tautologically, low mobility for frontline workers is the result of too much friction on the path from here to there. But despite stated do-gooder (if amorphous) missions of public and not-for-profit postsecondary institutions, groundbreaking efforts over the past 50 years to reduce friction for frontline workers and establish smoother pathways to good jobs have actually come from the place that gave birth to Amazon: the private sector. The narrative isn’t without bumps or sins. And the last chapter hasn’t been written yet.
The first attempt to reduce friction for frontline workers was the advent of convenient campuses at highway interchanges and at shopping malls in the 1980s and 90s. Private sector institutions pioneered commuter route campuses – as well as the concomitant, omnipresent, and aggravating highway signs – offering accelerated programs in the evenings and on weekends and making higher education more accessible for millions. The misstep was free federal funding allowing these schools to get greedy. Rather than taking a few months tuition for short training programs leading to good jobs, why not capture years of tuition via degree-completion. After all, aren’t degrees what respectable colleges and universities offer? Over time, avariciousness led to full degrees. (Why settle for two years of federally-funded tuition when three or four are within reach?)
Version 2.0 was online degrees. For the first decade of the new millennium, millions of frontline workers were drawn by the convenience of attempting degrees online. The problem was that inexpensive asynchronous online courses – the ones favored by private sector institutions willing and able to spend thousands of dollars per federally funded student on digital marketing and enrollment call centers – didn’t engage frontline workers, who may not be adequately prepared, and whose motivation to persist and complete is often overwhelmed when life gets in the way (as it does). Any reduction in friction gained as a result of improved access was lost in terms of completion, which put the mockers on the whole thing.
Version 3.0 of friction reduction was getting employers to pay for online degrees for frontline workers. For decades, large employers offered tuition reimbursement to employees. Then Guild Education pioneered selling tuition reimbursement as a retention strategy for frontline workers, using a slick online platform to connect Chipotlerians to online degrees from a network of non-selective universities. But because Guild and its imitators explicitly sell employers on immobility (i.e., employee retention in frontline jobs), and given continuing friction from unengaging online courses and a lack of connective tissue between degrees offered and good jobs, swapping the FAFSA for tuition reimbursement doesn’t accomplish much in the greater scheme of things.
While modest reductions in friction for frontline employees may have been acceptable in less perilous times, 2020 calls for dramatic innovation. Like everything else this Christmas, that innovation is being delivered by Amazon. Career Choice is Version 4.0 and a huge step forward, providing Amazon warehouse team members with the lowest friction pathway yet.
Amazon’s Career Choice program has three trailblazing, friction-reducing features:
1) On Site
“All newer Amazon warehouses have fishbowl classrooms just off the floor,” Ardine Williams, Amazon’s VP of Workforce Development told me in an interview last week. For programs not delivered in warehouse classrooms – i.e., online programs from community college partners, or during Covid – Amazon coordinates study cohorts in warehouse classrooms. “We have much higher success in online programs with this cohort model.”
While Career Choice does provide some associate degree programs, Williams and Amazon recognize that “adult learners prefer faster pathways.” So in stark contrast to postsecondary institutions attempting to maximize tuition revenue, Career Choice privileges shorter certificates.
3) Connection to Local, Open Jobs
Career Choice training is only offered for local open jobs that pay at least 10% more than Amazon’s $15 per hour. “We can’t assume team members are interested in relocating,” said Williams, “so we don’t train for jobs that aren’t available in the community.” As a result, while Career Choice offers 20 distinct training programs around the world in tech, healthcare, and transportation/logistics, “not every program is available at every site.”
As one might imagine for a company that tracks hundreds of millions of shipments each month, every element of Career Choice is tracked, “including whether team members are moving into the roles they’ve trained for.” So Williams says Amazon has also partnered with staffing companies and hopes to release new versions of Career Choice that further reduce hiring friction for tech, healthcare, and logistics employers and narrow the gap between program completion and a better job.
By reducing the friction of getting to class – or the friction of unengaging asynchronous online programs via on-site cohorts – by shortening the pathway, and by better connecting training to available jobs, Career Choice is helping frontline workers in greatest need of socioeconomic mobility; more than half of the 30,000 Career Choice participants to date are underrepresented minorities.
While colleges and universities that have been asleep at the switch for frontline workers will struggle over the coming years to continue their meagre contributions (new low-friction pathways for frontline workers simply aren’t on cabinet agendas), and while so-called one-stop workforce centers that are supposed to help 10M newly unemployed frontline workers actually involve multiple stops (and starts and stops), Amazon has established a new paradigm for both. To see what a clear pathway to good jobs looks like – to see a true one-stop – displaced and disgruntled frontline workers should head out to the nearest Amazon warehouse.
I recently received an e-mail titled “Better connecting learners to jobs.” But due to a typo, the message actually read: “Better connecting learners to jokes.” This is a fair description of the status quo for frontline workers. But Amazon’s effort is an important step forward. By reducing friction for frontline workers in these three ways, Career Choice is a viable solution to “train and pray.”
While the heroes of Christmas pick and pack at Amazon’s warehouses, policymakers are packing and picking student loan debt forgiveness: $10k or $50k? It seems this decision will be made without regard to how much student debt is actually held by frontline workers vs. those who already have a secure footing on a career ladder (or who may have borrowed for graduate and professional degrees). Until we figure this out, we won’t know whether debt forgiveness is a step forward, or likely to prompt further anger and resentment from the frontline workers the Biden Administration wants to help.
A better approach than picking and packing is poking and proding Amazon’s competitors and other large employers of frontline workers to replicate Career Choice. Not every major employer of frontline workers will invest more than $60M and hire a talented leader like Ardine Williams (formerly a Captain in the U.S. Army, where they remember what socioeconomic mobility looks like). So perhaps Bidens – Joe and Dr. Jill – will see the value of providing financial incentives so companies like Guild can launch big businesses setting up and managing Career Choice copycats.
If the government won’t step in, another option is rankings. Rankings by U.S. News and others have perverted higher education for decades, incentivizing selectivity and investments in inputs that put the brake on what was once America’s engine of socioeconomic mobility. U.S. News and its parasitic pals can make amends by ranking companies by how much they invest in the socioeconomic mobility of their frontline workers. Millions of online shoppers would use such rankings to make buying decisions – Career Choice influencing consumer choice.
McDonald’s likes to promote itself as America’s Best First Job. Amazon Career Choice makes that a laughable Ho Ho Ho. While earlier versions of pathways for frontline workers kept them in stasis, Career Choice is designed to reduce friction and increase mobility. Williams acknowledges doing so is in her interest; it makes Amazon a more attractive place to work, which makes it easier to secure the motivated frontline workers Amazon needs to save Christmas. In a dark year, those of us receiving Amazon shipments this season – for their sake, hopefully not one of everything – can feel good about that.