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Boxed's Union City warehouse. Photo: Christopher Matthews / Axios

UNION CITY, NJ — Visit Boxed headquarters, and you'll find lighthearted employees working right alongside an automated picking machine that retrieves items without human help, two miles of conveyor belts that move items faster than people can, and other robotic devices. The online retailer, a competitor of Costco and Sam's Club, has attracted years of fawning publicity for carrying out all this automation at its warehouses without laying off a single employee. Plus, it is even raising salaries.

The cruel twist: Boxed is already shrinking the number of added workers required for expansion — one executive said that to triple business at the warehouse, he'll only need to hire 33% more labor. That aligns with an axiom of automation — that jobs offering the best chance of rising pay are usually in industries that are growing and adding labor-saving technologies at the same time, before the number of jobs eventually declines.

What the data say: In a study published in June, MIT economist David Autor looked at 19 countries over 35 years, and showed that automation doesn't kill overall employment, but reduces jobs within automating sectors.

  • Boxed CEO Chieh Huang tells Axios that his company is growing quickly enough that it must add both technology and workers in order to meet demand. And Boxed may end up being an outlier to the larger trends — after all, Amazon, too, is reporting big hiring plans even while automating aggressively.
  • But the bigger picture is a process that is disruptive to workers' lives. "We find that industry-level employment robustly falls as industry productivity rises, implying that technically progressive sectors tend to shrink," Autor writes.

A little-appreciated rule of automation: A little-appreciated rule of automation: Robots require people skills, but while the jobs working next to them may pay better, their numbers are fewer. One example is manufacturing, whose employment peaked back in the late 1970s, but has continued to set productivity records.

  • Jobs in the sector pay better than average, while often not requiring more than a high school degree — manufacturing jobs still pay 10.9% higher than those in the rest of the economy, when controlling for required education levels, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
  • And the appeal of manufacturing jobs goes further, like offering stable predictable schedules and involving making things rather than providing (sometimes demeaning ) services to others. The loss of manufacturing employment, therefore, has a broader, sociological impact.
  • For many years, the effect of automation in manufacturing was not that employment was being lost, but that no new jobs were being created on net, even as the industry sold more and more stuff.

But it's more complicated, too: Autor tells Axios that automation can only tell part of the story of the decline of American manufacturing employment. Trade plays a huge role in the plunge of manufacturing jobs, he says, with China's 2001 accession to the WTO a major factor in convincing American employers to move jobs there. "Although the predominant force that has slowly eroded manufacturing employment in the post-WWII era is productivity growth, that's not the right story for the 2000s," he writes in an email.

Go deeper

Updated 6 hours ago - Politics & Policy

1 dead after pickup truck hits Pride spectators in Florida

Police investigate the scene where a pickup truck drove into a crowd of people at a Pride parade in Wilton Manors, Florida, on Saturday. Photo: Jason Koerner/Getty Images

A driver in a pickup truck hit spectators at a Pride festival in Wilton Manors, Florida, killing a man and leaving another person hospitalized Saturday, authorities said.

Details: Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis told reporters police had "apprehended the driver" and that the vehicle missed a parade car carrying Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) "by inches."

Updated 8 hours ago - Sports

Uganda Olympic team member tests positive for COVID in Tokyo

The Uganda National boxing team's Catherine Nanziri (L) and others arrive for check-in at Entebbe international airport in Wakiso, Uganda on Friday, ahead of their departure to participate in the Tokyo Olympic Games. Photo: Badru Katumba/AFP via Getty Images

A Uganda Olympic team member tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival in Japan late Saturday, officials said.

Why it matters: Japan's government has faced criticism for vowing to host the Tokyo Games next month as coronavirus cases rise. The Ugandan team is the second to arrive in Japan after the Australian women's softball players, and this is the first COVID-19 infection detected among the Olympic athletes, Al Jazeera notes.

Updated 12 hours ago - World

In photos: Brazilians rally against Bolsonaro as COVID deaths top 500,000

A June 19 protest in São Paulo, Brazil, against the administration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has railed against precautionary health measures despite the soaring COVID-19 death rate and cases. Photo: Rodrigo Paiva/Getty Images

Demonstrators took to the streets in at least 22 of Brazil’s 26 states to protest President Jair Bolsonaro's handling of the pandemic — as deaths from COVID-19 in the country surged past 500,000 Saturday, per AP.

The big picture: Brazil has the world's second-highest coronavirus death toll and third-highest number of reported cases. Only 12% of the country's population has been vaccinated against the virus, AP notes.

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