Amazon Puts Out 'Help Wanted' Sign Around The Country

fromWPLN

President Obama visits Chattanooga, Tenn., Tuesday to continue his "job creation" speeches around the country. He's stopping at a distribution center for Amazon.com. On Monday, the online retailer announced it's hiring 5,000 workers across several states.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Obama is back on the road today. He's giving another economic speech - this time at an Amazon distribution center in Tennessee. To mark the occasion, the online retail giant decided to put out the best kind of news. It's adding more than 5,000 jobs across 13 states.

Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville reports on what's been a rapid expansion of the company's order fulfillment centers.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Amazon is trying to get so close to its customers, it could deliver that book, or a flat screen TV - even groceries, on the same day. So Amazon's Paul Misener has been sprinkling hiring announcements all over the country in recent years, including in Tennessee, where the president speaks today.

PAUL MISENER: In over three year's time, we will be bringing at least 3500 full-time jobs with comprehensive health care to the state. So this is a big deal for us.

FARMER: And since this announcement in 2011, it's been a big deal for job hunters. Hiring fairs like this one in the town of Lebanon draw thousands vying for entry-level positions.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do you have proof of your high school diploma or GED?

REGGIE PEOPLES: I do not have it with me.

FARMER: It's a warehouse job Reggie Peoples of Nashville is going for, but one that does come with benefits.

PEOPLES: Trying to get insurance is the biggest thing that, you know, people are struggling with right now.

FARMER: Amazon jobs also have the possibility of stock awards and a retirement plan.

The Seattle-based company has been criticized for its low hourly wages and demanding schedules. But it says starting pay is roughly 30 percent higher than average retail work. And the comparison with retail is intentional, says Todd Bishop. He follows e-commerce as co-founder of GeekWire.

TODD BISHOP: These are in a lot of ways the new retail jobs out there. They are people working in fulfillment centers versus the floor of a store.

FARMER: But the job can be a bit tougher than the typical retail gig.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY AT FACTORY WAREHOUSE)

FARMER: This is video from inside a distribution center provided by Amazon. It shows pickers, as they're called, storming aisles and aisles of products - a million different items in some warehouses. They assemble and box up online orders during shifts lasting longer than 12 hours during peak seasons.

Still, the competition for these jobs is fierce, particularly between states. Amazon has squeezed millions in tax breaks out of each local government where it sets up. And states have pitched in millions more in direct payments.

MAYOR ANDY BERKE: We offer those incentives when we think it makes sense, not just for the company, but for the community as a whole.

FARMER: Andy Berke is the mayor of Chattanooga. He concedes Amazon jobs aren't the highest paying but they're part of the mix, he says, and he calls Amazon a good corporate citizen.

BERKE: The President coming here really highlights the way in which they've become part of our community and I'm proud to have him here.

FARMER: But Berke, who is a Democrat, may be in the minority among public officials in Tennessee. While they've been big cheerleaders for Amazon setting up shop, the state's ruling Republicans say the company has grown here in spite of national economic policies. They created a TV ad to air ahead of the visit.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Maybe you could learn a thing or two while you're here, Mr. President. This is what America should look like.

FARMER: However, the thousands of new jobs from Amazon haven't been enough to hold down unemployment. Tennessee's jobless figure remains nearly a full point higher than the national average.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

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