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Sunday, July 28, 2013

A New Role for Amazon: An Engine for Jobs

American technology companies like Apple have been criticized for outsourcing manufacturing of their gadgets to China, rather than employing people to do the work in the United States. But one tech icon, Amazon, is seeking to call attention to the thousands of working-class jobs it’s creating in the United States.

On Monday, Amazon plans to announce it is creating more than 5,000 new full-time jobs in its United States warehouses to handle growing customer demand. The company currently employs more than 20,000 warehouse workers here, so the new positions represent a significant increase in its head count.

Amazon’s announcement is timed to coincide with a speech on middle-class jobs that President Obama is expected to give Tuesday at an Amazon warehouse in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The jobs will be in warehouses in 10 states, from Delaware to California.

For a tech company, Amazon is an unusual hybrid of white- and blue-collar jobs. It employs plenty of computer scientists, MBAs and all the usual types found at technology companies. But it also relies on tens of thousands of people to do the sweaty, physical work of picking, packing and delivering Amazon orders. Those are jobs Amazon can’t outsource to China (though the company, like nearly all electronics makers, does have its electronic device, the Kindle, made overseas).

How great those jobs are is a matter of some debate. The working conditions in an Amazon warehouse in Pennsylvania, including excessive heat, was the subject of an investigative article in 2011 by The Morning Call newspaper in Lehigh Valley. The company says it remedied the heat problem by installing air-conditioning in its facilities. Amazon has also resisted union organizing at its warehouses.

Amazon said median pay in its warehouses is 30 percent higher than retail pay in those same areas. That doesn’t include the stock grants full-time employees receive, which over the past five years have added an average of 9 percent to workers’ base pay annually.

The sheer numbers of people Amazon is hiring has obviously landed the company on the radar screen of politicians stumping for job growth. Since September 2008, around the start of the most recent recession, Amazon said it has added more than 40,000 jobs in the United States, including warehouse and white-collar jobs.

Just last week, Amazon reported that it has 97,000 full-time employees around the globe, an eye-popping 40 percent increase from a year ago. The additional 5,000 positions it plans to hire for will push its global head count above 100,000.

By contrast, Apple reported its head count was over 72,000 at the end of last September. Microsoft has over 99,000 employees. Hewlett-Packard has more than 300,000 employees; I.B.M. has over 400,000 workers.

But Amazon was founded in 1994, decades after those other companies. It has certainly gotten big, fast.