Amazon offers to pay vocational training for warehouse staff

The move seems designed to quell criticism over working conditions at its warehouses

Amazon is offering to cover 95 percent of the cost of vocational training courses to help its warehouse staff pursue jobs in other careers, including many that Amazon does not offer, the company said Monday in a letter posted on its home page.

The move follows criticism that Amazon has faced about reportedly harsh conditions for workers at its fulfillment centers, where orders received online are packaged and shipped out to customers.

"Many of our fulfillment center employees will choose to build their careers at Amazon. For others, a job at Amazon might be a step towards a career in another field. We want to make it easier for employees to make that choice and pursue their aspirations," CEO Jeff Bezos wrote in the letter.

Under the training benefit program, called Career Choice, Amazon will pay up to US$2,000 a year for four years for employees to undertake vocational training for high-demand jobs that pay relatively well.

The company will pay for training in fields such as aircraft mechanics, computer-aided design, machine tool technology, medical laboratory science and nursing, it said. Amazon drew from data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to help it determine which careers to support.

Amazon's fulfillment centers drew criticism after an investigative report last September depicted workers logging long hours in sweltering heat at one location. Protestors raised the issue again at the company's annual shareholders meeting in May, and CEO Jeff Bezos promised to install air conditioning in the warehouses.

Only full-time hourly workers who have been with the company for three consecutive years are eligible for the training benefits. It wasn't immediately clear what proportion of its fulfillment center staff that would include, and Amazon declined to say.

Amazon said in November 2011 that it had more than 15,000 full-time permanent employees in its 34 U.S. warehouses. But an undisclosed number of fulfillment center workers are temporary or part time, and therefore do not appear to meet the Career Choice eligibility requirement.

During the winter holiday season, for example, Amazon brings in "many more people" to staff fulfillment centers, Bezos said in his letter. The company's fulfillment center career hub also solicits temporary workers.

Still, Amazon's efforts appear to be softening some of its critics. Working Washington, a Seattle-based labor rights group, welcomed Monday's announcement.

"We are glad to see Amazon responding to public concerns and beginning to take steps to improve conditions for workers in their warehouses ... Amazon certainly hasn't solved every problem at their warehouses, but this is a good step," Sage Wilson, a Working Washington representative, said in an email.

Cameron Scott covers search, web services and privacy for The IDG News Service. Follow Cameron on Twitter at CScott_IDG.

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