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Warehouse Techs — The Humans That Make the Robots Run

Sealed box on a rolling steel conveyor

We’ve all had the experience — you order something online and it seems to arrive in almost otherworldly time. There is no doubt that you’ve wondered like we once did: ”how do they do that?”’ The answer, of course, is technology and fulfillment processes advancing in lightning leaps of speed. With drones coming, heralding same-day and eventually same-hour delivery, it’s only going to get more impressive.

As automation replaces the most routine jobs in warehouse and production, a new group of technical specialists are emerging — the people who program, monitor, manage and maintain the machines. The people behind the robots. Emerging alongside these new high-tech fulfilment maintenance specialists is the generation of Aerotek managers tasked with helping the still growing e-commerce goliaths source and place them. We recently caught up with two of these warehouse tech experts to get an inside view of this emerging labor space inside the retail fulfillment centers of tomorrow, today.

The new math of replacement

Each day we read more stories predicting how automation will replace humans in the workplace of tomorrow. We know from our work across every almost every industry in America, the emerging ratios of humans to machines are more complex than some analysts imagine. We spoke with Roman Sanchez, Aerotek’s strategic account executive for warehouse technology, to get his front-row take on this dynamic workplace trend.

“We work with the biggest e-commerce companies in the US. When it comes time to help them staff a new one or two million square foot fulfillment center, that usually means about 2,000 to 3,000 jobs. During surge seasons, like the one we’re preparing for now heading into the holidays, they’ll add another 1,500 to 2,000 temporary jobs.”

“That’s a lot of humans being put to work. We also know that, on average, introducing a new robotics component into the fulfillment process can replace as many as 20-30 human roles. Much of the coverage in the media about how automation will make people obsolete misses an important factor. In this industry, an additional 3,000-4,000 people are being employed in jobs that didn’t exist a few years ago. These new warehouse techs are one of the fastest growing groups of skilled American labor.”

Born troubleshooters

We wondered about the types of people who fill these new roles, and the skills they bring. Cosette Romero, Aerotek’s recruiting lead in the Los Angeles strategic recruiting center, described her hiring profile for us.

“The most important skill we’re looking for in a candidate is a talent for troubleshooting. This is a particular type of person, and they’re rarer than you think. Much of this technology is quite new, so we struggle sometimes to find enough skilled maintenance techs that have had hands-on experience with these advanced systems. Sometimes we find them coming from the commercial food processing world and from CNC warehouses.”

“We also look for candidates coming direct from trade schools, and sometimes, unsurprisingly, from the engineering ranks. One of the most rewarding things is when we find ambitious candidates who have deep experience as warehouse workers, not necessarily high tech — yet. Helping these workers upskill and excel in this role is always a great feeling.”

Under the hood

Roman spoke about the technology inside these fulfillment centers. “I’ll describe a facility we staff here in the Kansas City area. Out of the seventy contractors we place, twenty of them are the highly skilled techs working on robotics systems and machines. Everything is computerized, literally, even the palette jacks and forklifts. The robotics systems rely on sensors and highly computerized hardware and software systems to reach levels of accuracy that would be impossible in manual processing environments.”

Cosette spoke about the core technology that lies at the heart of much of the automated warehouse — the PLC. “It stands for programmable logic controller, and the specialists we find and place often are responsible for supporting this fundamental component at the heart of these automated facilities. We know from experience that a lot of the maintenance techs, especially ones who came from mechanical backgrounds, find it pretty cool to be working at the leading edge of the supply chain. Robotics are hot.”

All techs are not create equal

Roman talked about the different levels of specialists who make up this growing high-tech workforce.

“We have the entry level ‘tech 3s’ that often have a mechanical background and are eager to add more technical skills to their professional repertoire and resume. As you might imagine, people who grew up working on cars and motorcycles often make good candidates. Despite the transfer of skills, we often share a helpful analogy —moving from being a mechanic into a highly skilled maintenance tech is like graduating from working on your old 1975 Monte Carlo to a 2017 BMW. They get it.”

“The tech 1s are the most highly skilled and obviously the most highly paid. Compensation levels for these top-end specialists are very competitive. Finding these tech 1s, who generally must have two to three years hands-on experience is one of our biggest challenges, for a simple reason — much of these advanced robotics systems aren’t that old yet!”

Career-building to the future

We asked Cosette if any contractor stories stood out from the diversity of candidates she’s recruited. “We had one gentleman who was an engineer and, honestly, was fairly over-qualified. He wasn’t happy with his career direction and wanted to try his hand at maintenance tech. He’s a natural self-starter and with minimal lack of daily direction, he loves going about his work day.”

“Another candidate was working a production job not making the money he needed or felt he deserved. We placed him as a tech 3 maintenance specialist, and he’s now making 30% more than he was — and on his way to a long-term career.”

If you’re interested in exploring career opportunities in the fast-growing field of warehouse tech specialists, check our current open positions. If you haven’t already, we invite you to create your free Aerotek career account.