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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")
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