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

Ex-officer pleads not guilty to charges related to Breonna Taylor killing

Brett Hankison is charged with three counts of wanton endangerment. Photo: Courtesy by the Shelby County Sherrif's Department

The former Louisville police officer charged with three counts of wanton endangerment in connection with the raid that led to the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor, an unarmed Black woman, pleaded "not guilty" on Monday, the Courier Journal reports.

The big picture: The announcement of charges against Brett Hankison, who was fired from the department in June, set off nationwide protests last week. None of the officers involved in the raid were indicted on homicide or manslaughter charges related to Taylor's death.

SurveyMonkey poll: Trump's Ohio bet

Data: SurveyMonkey survey of 3,092 Ohio voters, Sept. 1-25, 2020; Note: COVID-19 was a write-in option; Chart: Axios Visuals

President Trump leads Joe Biden 51%-47% among likely Ohio voters overall — but he holds a whopping 74%-24% lead with those who say a flagging economy and job concerns are their top issue, according to new SurveyMonkey-Tableau data for Axios.

Why it matters: Ohioans are more worried about their jobs than the coronavirus — and that's President Trump's best chance to cling to a narrow lead in this state he won handily in 2016.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 4:30 p.m. ET: 33,224,222 — Total deaths: 999,298 — Total recoveries: 22,975,298Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 4:30 p.m. ET: 7,134,874 — Total deaths: 204,905 — Total recoveries: 2,766,280 — Total tests: 101,308,599Map.
  3. States: Cuomo extends New York moratorium on evictions until 2021.
  4. Business: Companies are still holding back earnings guidance.
  5. Health: Trump announces plan to distribute 150 million rapid tests —The childless vaccine.
  6. World: India the second country after U.S. to hit 6 million cases.

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