What If Amazon’s Next Big Innovation Was to Improve the Jobs of Its Blue-Collar Workers?
Earlier this spring, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos released his annual letter to shareholders. Like every shareholders letter Bezos has written since his company went public in 1997, this year’s version was brilliant, entertaining, and filled with big strategic insights and gritty management takeaways.
To my eyes, though, it was also missing something — an omission that became even more glaring a week or so later. For the first time, public companies were required to publish not only compensation figures for their CEO but also the median pay package earned by their workers. As the Wall Street Journal noted, median compensation at many high-tech companies was astounding — $240,000 at Facebook, for example, and $253,000 at a biotech firm called Incyte. At Amazon, though, median compensation was only $28,446 — evidence not that Jeff Bezos is cheap, but that Amazon’s workforce is fundamentally different from the coders and engineers who populate most high-tech disrupters. As the Journal noted, “Most of the roughly half-million employees at Amazon unload trucks, drive forklifts and walk miles collecting products to fill orders.”
And that’s what’s missing from this year’s letter — and from pretty much every letter since 1997. The Amazon CEO writes ingeniously about customer service, cloud computing, and the logic of creativity. What Bezos rarely, if ever, writes about is how he can apply his powers of strategic thinking and bold innovation to creating a more compelling future for the hundreds of thousands of Amazon workers who work in its warehouses and distribution centers. To the CEO whose annual letters pay such careful attention to so much of what happens at the company, these blue-collar workers seem oddly invisible — more of an afterthought than an essential part of Amazon’s workforce. Surely one of the world’s most creative entrepreneurs, not to mention its richest person, could think bigger and aim higher when it comes to the blue-collar workers who keep things moving.
Even as I make it, part of me worries this critique is unfair. After all, this year’s letter makes reference to a development program called Amazon Career Choice, in which the company pays 95% of the cost of tuition, fees, and books for hourly workers with more than one year of tenure. It seems like a good program, but it’s only one program, and Bezos has written about this same program, with much the same language, in three of his annual letters over the last four years. Are there no other major initiatives to highlight, or create, that would give hourly workers a greater sense of personal growth and financial security?
I also worry that I am holding Bezos to too high a standard. How many world-changing billionaires, with interests from launching rockets to publishing a powerful newspaper, would devote time and energy to elevating the status of forklift drivers and package pickers? Yet Bezos’s new letter explicitly highlights the power of high standards, and the importance of extending high standards from a few domains (“inventing,” “customer care,” “hiring”) to all domains (how to “keep fixed problems fixed,” how to “eliminate defects at the root”). As Bezos himself notes, “You can consider yourself a person of high standards in general and still have debilitating blind spots. There can be whole arenas of endeavor where you may not even know that your standards are low or non-existent…”
I would submit, based on my review of the entire collection of Jeff Bezos’s letters to shareholders, that the opportunity to unleash bold advances in the working conditions and career trajectories of blue-collar employees represents one such blind spot. A cynic might point out that, in this, Bezos is hardly alone; after all, stark inequality, and a growing gap between the life prospects for highly educated professionals and blue-collar workers, has become the new normal in today’s economy and society. Yet Bezos himself, in his 2014 letter to shareholders, described the joys of “reinventing normal” — creating “inventions that customers love and resetting their expectations for what normal should be.”
Here’s hoping that next year, one of the world’s most celebrated CEOs can describe how he and his company are reinventing normal for the hundreds of thousands of workers who toil in its warehouses. That would be a letter to shareholders the whole world would be eager to read.
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