Two Amazon stories this week caught my attention (and maybe yours too!). Both have to do with Amazon’s workforce — rarely major news unless there’s something straightforwardly political happening, like a union election or a hearing about workplace injuries — and both involve a crucial misjudgment by Amazon in assuming that the company’s successes can save it from its own shortcomings. (This is a kind of hubris that’s far from unique to Amazon, but let’s say it’s not uncommon at the company either.)
In certain areas, like metropolitan Phoenix and southern California’s Inland Empire, the situation was even more acute, with a projected hiring pinch coming as soon as this year.
To mitigate this forthcoming labor crunch, Amazon seems to have increased hiring bonuses and wages, relaxed some of its stricter workplace rules in certain locations to avoid shedding needed workers, and more broadly worked to retain a workforce it was once explicit policy to quickly churn through.
Some of this is a result of Amazon’s competitors offering better wages for comparable jobs. Some of it is the result of the COVID-19 outbreak and the subsequent labor market changing workers’ employment preferences. Some, surely, is a product of Amazon’s own difficult working conditions becoming more notorious. And again, it was Amazon’s own policy to offer buyouts, seasonal pay, and other enticements to keep its workforce at an “as-needed” level, cycling employees into and out of the company.
But some of it, too, has to be laid at the longstanding belief that many if not most of Amazon’s warehouse and fulfillment center jobs could and would eventually be automated, and that the American workforce would remain reasonably plentiful and pliant until that moment was reached. In short, whether it misjudged the technology or the evolving American blue-collar workforce, Amazon misjudged the future. That’s not something the company’s executives can do frequently without consequence.
However, at a different level of the company, Amazon is facing the consequences of a different kind of misjudgment. Dave Clark, head of the company’s consumer business and warehouse division — the very same division that may not have enough applicants to select for its US workforce within a few years — has left the company to take a position as CEO of a logistics startup called Flexport
. Clark’s departure was unusually hasty for a longtime top employee, as he left without a succession plan in place. His departure also followed announcements that the company would be withdrawing from the aggressive expansion plan he helped lead, as well as renewed Congressional interest in the company’s labor safety record and anti-union activities.
This week, Clark’s replacement was announced, with a slight restructuring of the roles involved: Doug Herrington will be the new CEO of Worldwide Amazon Stores, and John Felton will be promoted to run operations, reporting to Herrington. Both men are Amazon veterans. However, as often happens when one executive has left the company and others are promoted, two of Amazon’s most noteworthy executives are leaving the company
: Alicia Boler Davis (SVP of fulfillment) and David Bozeman (VP of trucking). Boler Davis and Bozeman are both Black. Amazon is now back to where it was in 2019, with zero Black executives on its senior leadership team.
At that time, before being hired by Amazon, Boler Davis was on track to possibly become CEO of General Motors. She was promoted to join Amazon’s “S-team” in 2020. Regardless of whether she was seen internally as a successor to Clark, and by whom, it is unlikely her tenure at Amazon would have been so brief if the succession transition had played out differently. Ditto Bozeman, one of a small number of Black vice presidents at the company.
Amazon said it doubled the number of Black employees in the United States at the director and vice president levels in 2020, and by another almost 70 percent in 2021. About 70 percent of Amazon’s U.S. work force
, largely its hourly workers that power its operations, are not white.
(Without numbers, these percentages don’t mean much. Did the company go from five Black directors/VPs to ten, and then to seventeen? That’s kind of what it sounds like.)