The wheels of a tall, metal cart squeak as Chris Beatty, 26, pulls it through a maze of aisles inside a cosmetics warehouse in Burlington, N.J.
A hand-held scanner helps Beatty find specific items, such as face cream or lipstick — to be sorted, packed and shipped to online customers. In his industry, this is called picking.
Asked if a robot could do his job, Beatty responds with a long pause. "That's a tough one," he says eventually, "but I don't think a robot could do this."
Or, maybe he just doesn't want to think about it. "I love my job too much," he says, with a smile.
His optimism matches the findings in a new NPR/Marist poll. The survey shows 94 percent of U.S. workers — across all industries — say it's unlikely they will lose jobs to automation.
Interviews with numerous warehouse workers at Beatty's employer — Radial — and others employed by Amazon revealed their confidence about the future.
But many forecasters aren't as sanguine. They point to giants like Amazon and Walmart speeding up warehouse work with machines.
Thanks to surging online shopping, retail warehouses are booming, and so are jobs. But the unavoidable buzzword is automation. Labor economists say the industry is quickly learning the same lesson that reshaped manufacturing — intense competition and larger scale lead to a big push for efficiency to keep costs down.
The warehouse companies tend to say that robots will supplement and ease human labor, not replace it. For example, Amazon, which has rolled out thousands of robots, maintains a massive workforce and is perpetually on a hiring spree. Amazon says it has more than 75 fulfillment centers, the majority of which employ at least a thousand full-time hourly associates. "Our 25+ robotics fulfillment centers employ 2,000 to 4,000 full-time hourly associates," an Amazon spokeswoman told NPR.
And warehouse employees themselves believe it will be hard for automation to squeeze them out of work.
"There's a lot of jobs in here that could be taken over by machines, but who's going to run the building?" says Marc Munn, who manages the department where Beatty works. "If something breaks ... I don't think we'll have other machines in here to fix that, so that's where my job comes into play."
Packer Bibiana Ramos points out the precision and care of her work. "I know there's machines that make boxes, but not this kind of boxes," she says. Ramos folds tissue paper inside a special box, placing cosmetics on top and gently affixing the shipping label. "It has to be kind of ... meticulous," she says, "so it could have a good presentation."
Alex Economos, who runs the Radial warehouse, says investing in a lot of robots makes more sense in a large million-square-foot Amazon facility than a small or midsize operation like his — robots aren't cheap.
He shares the story of RFID chips — little tags that started popping up in warehouses years back, when he worked for Walmart. They held the promise of easy, instantaneous automated accounting of all the items in a pallet, for example. But they didn't take off, he says, because of the cost of tagging every single item, especially cheap common goods like toothpaste.
Plus, the machines for now aren't really that skillful.
"You could never say never," Economos says. "But at this time ... you would literally need a robot with the dexterity, with the fingers to pick up something light, as small as a ChapStick, and as large as a bottle of shampoo."
One Amazon warehouse worker says her job includes making boxes for items that the scanners can't handle — like a fishing rod that's too thin for the lasers to recognize.
"A lot of the machines I see or deal with in the warehouse really aren't that great," she says, speaking anonymously to not violate the terms of her employment. "There are just so many things that you need a competent human to deal with in our warehouse."
But she's actually eager to see robots deal with heavy lifting and the messy parts of the job.
That appeals to Beatty, too, once he learns that Amazon has robots to bring the shelves to workers, instead of workers walking the aisles in search of products.
"That would be pretty cool," he says, "to see a robot bring some of your work to you."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This week, we have been exploring the realities of modern work. A new NPR/Marist poll found a lot of confidence in the future among American workers. A vast majority said they actually don't feel that threatened by the economic forces we hear so much about, like automation. NPR's Alina Selyukh talked to some people who could be affected by it.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHEELS SQUEAKING)
CHRIS BEATTY: Next aisle.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: When you go shopping online, chances are whatever you bought has been in a warehouse cart sort of like this one - tall metal shelves on wheels.
BEATTY: Seventeen D (ph), one piece, slot one.
SELYUKH: Chris Beatty is filling this cart in a warehouse in southern New Jersey that handles some of the top cosmetic brands. Today, Beatty is picking. He rolls the cart through aisles, finds the creams or lipsticks people bought and drops them into slots on his cart to fill online orders. He is definitely humming while he works.
SELYUKH: Beatty's 26, a lean guy in jeans, a sweatshirt and a knit cap. He's been working in warehouses for a few years now. He says his father got him into it. He used to operate a forklift.
BEATTY: He just told me, hey, look, just go with the flow. If they need help, go help them, you know? And that's what I did. I - anytime they needed help, I helped them. Anytime - overtime - I stayed. So that's how I got into warehouses. Warehouse work is pretty fun.
SELYUKH: Right now, Beatty works for a company called Radial. They're pretty new, and they're not a giant operation like Amazon or Walmart. But if you ask most labor economists, they'll tell you automation is coming fast to the whole industry, just like in manufacturing years back.
Do you think your job could be done by a robot?
BEATTY: That's a tough one, but I don't think a robot could do this.
SELYUKH: Why not?
SELYUKH: Or you just don't want it to do the job.
BEATTY: Nah, nah.
BEATTY: I love my job too much.
SELYUKH: I heard this kind of optimism in conversations with other Radial workers and with some who worked for Amazon, though Amazon workers spoke off the record to comply with corporate nondisclosure policies. Neither group was particularly worried about robots, and their confidence aligns with a new NPR/Marist poll, which found 94 percent of U.S. workers - almost all of them - say it's unlikely they will lose their jobs to automation.
MARC MUNN: There's a lot of jobs in here that could be taken over by machines. But who's going to run the building if the machines are in here?
SELYUKH: Marc Munn is a manager at Radial. Beatty works in his department. He told me he felt safe about his job because he is a senior manager who helps keep this place running.
MUNN: And you still need someone to come in here, open it up. You still need someone to oversee it. If something breaks and there's a machine running in here, I don't think we're going to have other machines in here to fix that, so that's where my job comes into play.
BIBIANA RAMOS: I know there is machines that make the boxes but not this kind of boxes.
SELYUKH: Bibiana Ramos is a packer. She carefully folds nice tissue paper inside a special box.
RAMOS: I think our customers - they like their products to look nice and presentable.
SELYUKH: Basically, you're saying you can make it look good in a way that a machine can't.
RAMOS: Right. Yes.
SELYUKH: All this illustrates the complexity behind the buzzword automation. For now, warehouses are hiring a lot to keep up with our online shopping boom. But people studying the field point to Amazon's investment in thousands of robots as a sign of things to come. For now, smaller competitors like Radial can't spend that kind of money. Plus, the machines aren't that smart yet. At Radial, one item of automation is a conveyor belt that sorts boxes by shipping type. But it can't process something small like an envelope, so that part of someone's job. In this case, it's Kyle Niver who is scanning the envelopes manually.
Do you think your job could be done by a machine?
KYLE NIVER: Yes. I worked in a place that does this kind of stuff. They build machines for this. So yes, I do feel like that could be taken away.
SELYUKH: So they build sorting machines.
NIVER: They build sorting machines and picking machines.
SELYUKH: What the companies tend to say about automation is, yes, the robots are coming, but they won't completely replace human dexterity and versatility. The men who run this Radial warehouse told me they definitely didn't see robots taking over in the next five years. After that, it's hard to predict. When I caught up again with Beatty, I told him about the Amazon robots that automate the very job he's doing today. Instead of workers walking the aisles to find products on shelves, Amazon's machines bring the shelves to the workers.
BEATTY: That would be pretty cool to see a robot bring some of your work to you, but I'm a hands-on guy. I like to do my own stuff. If it - if they come, they come, you know? There's nothing we could do about it. We just have to keep on doing what we do.
SELYUKH: Beatty says he and his father have talked about the future and automation a few times, but he says he just can't worry about that for now.
Alina Selyukh, NPR News Burlington, N.J.
(SOUNDBITE OF VULFPECK'S "CENTERING FUGUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.