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Inside an Amazon fulfillment center in Dupont, Wash. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

Amazon is embarking on a $700 million effort to retrain its U.S. workforce, in a high-profile acknowledgment of the impact of technology and automation on jobs and the workforce.

The company says it will spend the money over the next five years to “upskill” roughly 100,000 employees, about one-third of its U.S. workforce. The free program, announced Thursday morning, will allow Amazon workers to reboot their careers in hot areas such as data mapping specialist, data scientist, solutions architect and business analyst.

Amazon has emerged as a leader in rolling out new forms of automation and robotics in its fulfillment centers and other parts of its global operations. However, the company has long maintained that the net result of new technology will be overall job growth, even as the nature of work changes.

In a Seattle visit earlier this year, Andrew Yang, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, called on the tech giant to admit to the role of automation in job loss, something that he believes contributed to President Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, particularly in swing states where manufacturing is central to the economy.

Jeff Wilke, CEO of Amazon’s Worldwide Consumer business, told the Wall Street Journal in its coverage of the news this morning, “Technology is changing our society, and it’s certainly changing work.”

To put the investment in context, the $700 million, five-year pledge represents less than one-tenth of 1 percent of Amazon’s cumulative net sales of more than $742 billion over the past five years. By comparison, the company expects to spend $800 million in the current quarter as it shifts from two-day to one-day free Prime shipping.

The initiative, which the company calls “Upskilling 2025,” includes these programs, as listed in the company’s announcement.

  • Amazon Technical Academy trains workers in software engineering.
  • Associate2Tech trains fulfillment center workers for technical roles.
  • Machine Learning University offers technical employees training in machine learning.
  • AmazonCareer Choice, the company’s existing program that trains fulfillment center associates for new jobs.
  • Amazon Apprenticeship, a Department of Labor certified program that offers classroom training and on-the-job apprenticeships.
  • AWS Training and Certification for Amazon Web Services skills technical field.

[Update: A Washington Technology Industry Association representative says the apprenticeship program referenced above is conducted through the WTIA’s Apprenti program.]

In a December post, the company said, “Since introducing robots in 2012, approximately 300,000 full-time jobs have been added globally, disproving the misconception that machines are replacing humans in the workforce. In addition, robotic animation benefits employees, as they take over performance of fulfillment centers’ less desirable, more tedious tasks.”

In a post last month, Steve Campbell, director of Amazon Robotics Product Strategy, said the company “will need to hire more people to help sustain the increased productivity levels” from robotics, describing the effect as “the chain reaction of job growth we strive for when designing robotic systems.”

In June, the company said it now has 200,000 robots working in its fulfillment centers, and introduced two new types of robots for sorting and moving packages at its facilities.

Amazon has been getting increasingly proactive in confronting its critics on a range of policy issues. So far, however, the tight labor market has kept the issue of automation and jobs from becoming a major issue in the 2020 presidential race. In its news release this morning, Amazon cited U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data showing that there are more than 7 million job openings across the country, outnumbering the current estimate of 6 million people who are unemployed.

The company has faced criticism in the past about the working conditions in its fulfillment centers, including a blistering piece by comedian John Oliver earlier this month. But the company has fought back against those claims, touting its safety record. Dave Clark, Amazon’s senior vice president of Operations, called Oliver’s portrayal of the company insulting.

Amazon also has taken steps to reward its workforce through higher wages, last year taking the step to raise the minimum wage for its workers to $15 per hour.

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