What Amazon's Hiring Announcement Doesn't Mean

Sorting packages at an Amazon.com fulfillment center in Goodyear, Ariz. Photograph by Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo

Amazon announced yesterday that it plans to hire 5,000 new full-time “fulfillment associates” at 17 warehouses around the country, along with 2,000 new workers in its customer-service department. Today President Obama is set to tour one of the company’s facilities in Chattanooga, Tenn. It’s no coincidence.

The company’s announcement is unsurprising and slightly cynical. Reading too much into it is like making a big deal about an increase in gross domestic product without accounting for inflation or population growth. The additional hiring isn’t a function of corporate philanthropy or Obama administration policies. It’s Amazon keeping up with the basic facts of its growing business.

Amazon’s growth has been fairly steady, and if it continues, sales during its busy holiday season will rise about 22 percent over the same period last year. The company currently employs around 20,000 people at its warehouses; a 5,000-person increase is a 25 percent bump, about in line with the expected growth in sales. It needs those workers at its rapidly proliferating fulfillment centers to deliver all those toys, clothes, and high-definition televisions.

The company is getting better at ballparking its staffing needs. In its earliest days, Amazon dispatched extra employees from Seattle to its fulfillment centers every fall to keep up with the holiday rush. Last year it bought robot purveyor Kiva Systems to help manage the flow. All the same, more customers buying more stuff still requires more staff.

The desirability of those jobs has come into question over the past couple years. Amazon’s reputation has taken a hit from complaints that its fulfillment associates endure unpleasant, unhealthy, even Orwellian conditions. Since Amazon is fighting sales tax efforts in several states—it has surrendered in states such as California and New Jersey—being seen as a job creator is vital for the company’s image. More than anything else, Monday’s announcement shows that Amazon, a renowned innovator, can also be creative when it comes to public relations.

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