Whatever your opinion of Amazon, it's a fact that they are an employment juggernaught. Today we take a peek behind the veil of one of their many positions, thanks to Phil Lemos, from Massachusetts.
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Q: What is your job title or the title of your hobby/volunteer work?
A: My official title was Shift Assistant for Amazon Logistics. Essentially, I was the assistant manager on the overnight shift.
Q: How long have you been doing this work?
A: I worked there from October 2016 through January of 2018.
Q: Why did you choose this work?
A: I had an opportunity to teach a section of English Composition at a university to the incoming freshman, which is something I wanted to pursue to see if that had the potential to be a viable career path for me. Since schools don’t schedule classes at 3am, working overnights would give me the flexibility to try it out.
Q: What, if any, skills or training are required or sought out?
A: Obviously, you have to adjust your circadian rhythm so that you’re awake and functional on the overnights. You can’t be intimidated by computers and handheld scanners. You have to be willing to work hard. And attention to detail is pretty clutch.
Q: What does a typical day (shift, etc.) entail?
A: The short answer is there’s no such thing as a typical day.
But on days that go smoothly, we got in around midnight, checked in the trucks that had already arrived with packages, held a pre-shift meeting once the rank-and-file associates arrived to discuss that night’s game plan and address any potential issues. Then we’d start up the conveyor belts and begin unloading the trucks. Some of the employees worked on the dock to unload the merchandise; others worked in the aisles to pick the packages off the belts and place them in their geocoded locations. Depending on the time of year, we’d have anywhere from 40,000-65,000 packages a night to sort. This process generally took 4-5 hours, after which we’d send the employees on their “lunch break” (although strictly speaking it’s breakfast time).
After they return from break, we’d stage the packages next to their delivery vans or, if we had enough time, we’d load a few of the vans ourselves. At this point we’d send the associates home and the delivery drivers would trickle in. I’d address any issues with the dispatchers and sweep the aisles for any orphaned packages that may have been left behind, and stage them for a second delivery run later in the day. By this time it was usually about 10am, my day was done and I could go home and go to bed.
Probably the thing I was most famous for, though, was shutting off the conveyor belts and shouting “BREAK” or “LUNCH” at the top of my lungs to send everyone on their 15- or 30-minute breaks. This became my responsibility because I’m loud and obnoxious enough when I shout that the entire building to hear me. Someone once asked if I had Viking blood in me.
Q:What do you feel are the pros of this work?
A: Shift Assistants generally work 10-hour days, so we’re on a 4-day work week. I worked Wednesday-Saturday and it was nice having a three-day weekend. During the holidays or when someone was on vacation, they’d ask me to work a “normal” 5-day week, which would invariably mean some serious OT. The pay was really good to begin with, and we got night differential for working the overnight shift. I started as part of the rank-and-file—it’s a new warehouse and I was part of the second big wave of new hires. I can speak from first-hand experience that there are opportunities for rapid advancement if you work hard and you’re a quick learner.
Q:What do you feel are the cons of this work?
A: Obviously, the schedule is tough. It’s not easy working overnights. I got into the habit of going straight to bed when I got home and sleeping for as long as I can, but it’s tough training your body to adapt to that schedule.
During the school year I taught on Fridays, so I’d go in to the warehouse Friday at midnight, go home and sleep for a couple of hours, wake up and run to campus to teach class, go home and take a nap for a couple of hours, and then go back to the warehouse Saturday at midnight. And every shift has at least one weekend day built into the schedule, so in addition to the sleep deprivation the job kills your social life.
Also, the job can be pretty relentless during the holidays. After Halloween we had mandatory extra days built into our shifts, and the days were a lot busier because there was more volume. Prior to this job I worked as a store manager for CVS, which was more of the same. It’s tough when you can’t truly enjoy the holidays because you’re always working.
On a day when everything goes wrong it's a miserable existence. Sometimes trucks show up late, sometimes they show up hours late. One time I stayed until 2 in the afternoon picking up the pieces of a disastrous night.
Q: Would you recommend this work to others? Why or why not?
A: I think that depends on the individual. It was a great opportunity. But it’s not for everyone. If you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty, it can be very rewarding. If you don’t have a solid work ethic, or you can’t acclimate yourself to working overnights, it’ll eat you alive. When we had new hires, I occasionally ran first-day orientation, and I got to the point where I could tell within the first few minutes which new employees would last.
Q: If someone was interested in this work, what are the first steps they should take?
A: They’re always looking for people. They post ads on Craigslist, on the website, even on gas station monitors near where I live. It’s pretty easy to apply. As I mentioned earlier, if you give 100% every night, you can rise up the ranks pretty quickly. After that, show up every night and do your job.
Q: Finally, which experience from this work stands out the most to you? (A learning opportunity? Specific training? A crazy event?)
CRAZY EVENT: One day one of the conveyor belts shut down, it was the on-call technician’s normal night off, and his backup guy never responded when we contacted him. We grabbed a few rollers from storage and set up a makeshift belt to run packages down, had it going for 15 minutes—and then the warehouse fire alarm went off. I can laugh about it now, but that day was a complete waste of time.
SPECIFIC TRAINING: I would say this is a great job to learn and improve upon your management skills. It’s a simple job, but it’s not an easy job. You’re always being asked to accomplish unrealistic goals and given an insufficient amount of time to complete them. There are a lot of moving parts in the warehouse, both literally and figuratively. You have to train people adequately. You have to be good at taking the temperature of the room, figuring out how to resonate with a group of hundreds of employees, all of whom respond to different methods of leadership. You have to learn how to give praise to allow yourself the best chance to retain the hard-working employees that you want to keep around, but also manage the people that you can’t fire even though they probably deserve it. There were times when, inevitably, I came into conflict with people, and times when I said some things I wish I could take back. I made a ton of mistakes. But it was a great learning experience, which, obviously, feeds into….
LEARNING OPPORTUNITY: I think the biggest learning opportunity was in figuring out who I am as a person, what I want to accomplish in life. Last Thanksgiving, I stumbled upon a unique opportunity to teach at a second university starting in January, and I realized I had come to the proverbial fork in the road where I’d have to choose between the teaching and writing life or warehouse management. It was a tough decision, but the time had come to move on. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life scanning packages into bags—I feel like I have a greater purpose in life than that. That’s not to say this wasn’t a great experience. It paid well, which largely allowed me to go down this path. I learned a lot and I earned the respect of my coworkers. My last day I got a standing ovation from the employees on my way out trhe door, which was completely unnecessary, and probably unearned, but it was a nice send off as I closed another chapter in my life.
About today's guest: “In the 2010s Phil Lemos has worked on everything from payroll to pallet jacks. Currently he teaches shell-shocked college freshman how to cobble together their coherent thoughts into written form. A bunch of people have asked if he’ll ever finish that novel he’s working on.” Find him here - Email: Phillemos2017@gmail.com Twitter: @Phil_Lemos