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Pickers’ prospects – seven roles for redeployed warehouse staff after automation

Article by Megan Gee
warehouse workers

How will the roles of the human picker change as our warehouses automate?

Among the most common concerns about automation is the possibility of mass redundancies. With robots like the Q3 and the CTU able to take over huge swathes of the day-to-day work of most pickers, many might wonder what employment prospects are out there for those working in this sector.

This kind of robophobia misunderstands both how markets shift and how warehouses work. As automation advances, while picker numbers will change, we will not see their extinction. There are still many roles in the automated warehouse that need skilled and talented workers. These are the kinds of roles that pickers will be doing in the future.

1. Robot Maintenance

While there will be no small amount of retraining involved, the skills to take care of robots and their workings will be vital in the automated warehouse of the future. Since these machines are reliable enough to need only occasional checkups, rather than regular repair, it doesn’t make sense to employ someone whose only skill set is fixing robots. However, having a picker with training in how to keep robots going will be immensely valuable.

2. Returns Processing

Automating goods-to-person is one thing. Returns is another matter entirely. Sorting through products that have come back to the warehouse. Checking to see if they are compromised in some way that makes them non-saleable. Arranging them so they can be returned to the inventory or disposed of. All this requires substantive and specialised energy and effort. A task as yet un-automatable that requires perceptive pickers to get it done.

3. Stock Inspection

Many markets feature products that will need to be carefully checked at the pick stations. Keeping exact track of the condition of your stock is something that can only be estimated and approximated without well-informed eyes and ears at all the appropriate stages.

4. Goods In

Working as the first port of call for new stock’s arrival is a vitally important warehouse role. Goods In staff check new stock for damage, check that all that should be there is in fact there, check the couriers have no complaints or issues, and check that packaging waste is properly dealt with and put away. All these different duties need a person with professionalism and aptitude to get them done. A person like a redeployed picker.

5. Health & Safety

From first aid officers to chief fire marshals. Health and safety concerns will always need to be dealt with first and foremost by a trained member of staff. The idea of a robot offering CPR is deeply troubling, and not likely to become a reality for a long while. Again, this isn’t the kind of work that will be someone’s primary role, but rather one of a number of different duties that pickers will need to take over.

6. Warehouse Maintenance

Warehouses need to maintain a very particular set of conditions so as to keep the building’s structure secure, the working staff safe, and the stock in good condition. Having staff that know not just what to look for, but how to fix it when they find it, will be of immense value. While major repair work or serious reconstruction efforts will require full time construction workers, training pickers to be able to identify and correct lower level day-to-day maintenance issues will make even better use of the everyday manual workforce.

7. Social Coordinators

Staff are not robots that can do nothing but their jobs every weekday. Arranging social events, special occasions, and other “non-essential” events are what can turn a moderately cohesive workforce into a powerful and passionate team. This is not the kind of work that should go ignored or just expected as an additional extra. This is something that should be supported and directed by management, and organised by a hard working redeployed picker.

Pickers in the future are not going to have the same kind of jobs they have today. Automation will doubtless have some big impacts, but it won’t mean the huge layoffs that doom-sellers predict. It will instead mean reorganising, rearrangement, and redeployment. A workforce with diverse skills and varied duties. Able to take on many more different roles at once.

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