Walmart told investors last week that it plans to replace “some” of its 1.6 million employees with robots or other automated devices.
The company hosted investors at an automated distribution center that was all but devoid of human workers. Walmart plans to supply a third of its stores from similarly robotized warehouses by early next year. The bulk of its distribution will be automated in 3 years.
The company also said that it plans to automate other aspects of its business, like advertising and fulfillment, and that it’ll help profits grow quicker than sales.
That sounds like some serious planning…and that replacing “some” human workers might turn out to be “a lot” of them.
When asked about the impact on employment, however, the execs were expertly vague.
“…automation is about increasing capacity, not cutting jobs,” its head of supply chain operations declared, which is a true statement insomuch that the purpose of replacing people with robots is to increase productivity while lowering costs. Rendering human employees obsolete is a side effect.
Its CEO said that he “anticipates” that the company’s workforce will stay “about” the same size, but its composition will change.
This is disingenuous, at best, as his PR advisors prepped him to use a gauzy personal observation devoid of any mention of scale or time in lieu of a clear statement on behalf of the company.
An article at CNBC about the event quoted a Walmart employee who used to track shipments by pen and paper but now monitors those movements scanned into a computer. He proudly shared that he leaves work without feeling exhausted, since he used to lift boxes and operate a forklift.
Good luck keeping that job.
Walmart is being purposefully cagey about the human toll of its automation plans. My bet is that the hit will be huge. I also suspect that the impact is already being felt across its business, just like it has at its biggest competitor, Amazon.
I wonder why?
It could be because management simply doesn’t care. Walmart is breaking no laws. Technology is only one of the tools it uses. Improving business performance is its purpose for being, all the blather about corporate purpose notwithstanding.
Or maybe it’s because nobody pressed them on the question.
After all, why should business reporters care about expected impact on people when the jobs will still get done, and done better than before? Impacts on individual well-being and the economic and social fabric of communities? Who cares when that’s compared to the bright glow of positive quarterly earnings? AI and robots are such fun stories to tell and everything works itself out in the end, someday, somehow.
Who’s to stand in the way of such progress?
Maybe we should ask those questions?
I think Walmart is scared of that prospect.
[This essay originally appeared at Spiritual Telegraph]