Some years ago, back when I was young and feckless and needed a summer job while working my way through school, I spent a couple of summers working in a factory that made roofing products—asphalt shingles, rolls of tarred paper, and so on.
It was a backbreaking job, pure drudgery, but it was a union shop and thus paid better than most other jobs available for an unskilled 19-year-old student who would be leaving in a few weeks.
The first summer, my job was to take rolls of tarred paper off the conveyor at the end of the production line and build pallets of product for shipping. I recall those first weeks well—it was the most demanding physical job I've ever had. Rolls of paper impregnated with tar used as an underlayment on residential roofs would come off the production line at roughly 20-second intervals. Each stood about three feet tall and, if unrolled, would be about 140 feet long. They were heavy.
Alternating with another worker, I'd take one of the rolls off the end of the conveyor and stand it on a pallet. Once the pallet was filled—about a dozen rolls, as I recall—we tossed rope around the rolls and tied them off to stabilize them. A lift truck driver would haul away the pallet, we'd drop a new pallet in place, and we'd start again. And then again. And again, for eight hours. The saving grace for me was knowing that in September, I'd be back in the classroom.
I hadn't thought about that job in years until I was reporting a story on robotics for our November issue. The word "robot" comes from a Czech word that means something like "drudgery." Robots have a long history in factories, and they are appearing more often in distribution centers. Much of what they do is the hard, repetitive, often injurious work long done by human workers. It's not the kind of work that most people would do if they had a choice. Some of those I interviewed for the story talked about that—about how robots could take the place of workers in stiflingly hot trucks or in freezers or in hazardous environments, and noted that with gains in vision systems and software as well as hardware, they can mimic human movements better than ever.
The end result will be more productive DCs, but fewer jobs for unskilled workers. That's not a new story by any means. Eliminating some jobs is the price of productivity. But I've been at the end of those lines and know how deadening such jobs can be. They won't be missed. What's left to consider—and no one has an answer for this—is where, then, do today's unskilled workers (and there are millions of them) find well- paying and rewarding jobs?