We've finished with our fall season of workcamping. And we survived!
We started our own“workcamper tour” in late September, 2016. The American Crystal Sugarbeet Harvest in Drayton, North Dakota was first. It was scheduled to last until October 15. From there we went directly on to the Amazon Fulfillment Center for Peak 2016. As CamperForce workers in Campbellsville, Kentucky we would work from October 23 to December 23.
By December 2nd, 2016, it was clear, Amazon Work Camp had become more Work and less Camp.
As a first foray into “full time work camping,” we plunged into the deep end of the Work Camper pool, buoyed by our spirit of adventure. The sugarbeet harvest was an adventure—one in survival. Well, not truly survival. Thanks to our Roadtrek, we had all our basics plus a few comforts. We never really froze or starved. But facing freezing North Dakota winds, slogging through gray sticky-slick earth, and challenging giant beet-hauling diesel trucks twelve hours a day might have been effort enough to wear down our adventurous souls. But we had decided we could endure anything for two weeks, so we did.
Amazon, on the other hand became a challenge and our Roadtrek was a small part of it. At the beet harvest, we could bring our Roadtrek right to the worksite and use it as shelter from the weather and for lunch and break times. Since we only hooked up to electricity, this easy to do and was an easy set up and take down as every Roadtreker or Class B RV owner knows. At Amazon, our campsite was 7 miles from the Fulfillment Center and our shifts began at 6:00 a.m. We found other couples on our shift who came to Amazon in their Class A's pulling “toads” or in their fifth wheelers. They were all used to leaving their rigs and driving out to explore in separate vehicles, so changing their destination from fun to work was easy for them. Luckily for us, we found a generous couple who allowed us to “hitch along” to and from work. In exchange we supplied a couple of restaurant visits and we all were happy.
On the plus side, Campbellsville, KY is home to a wonderful Christian college. Campbellsville University opens its gym, dining hall and library to the community, including Work Campers. Good, lower cost meals, (well, for dorm food) free internet and library facilities made our lives fuller, along with the unexpected pleasure of eating dinner with three to four hundred college kids. There was also the undeniable bonus of staying at Green River Lake State Campground without cost. Amazon covers your stay for your whole tour. There are several parks in the area, as it is a top vacation spot in Kentucky. The camping at the Green River Lake State Campground and Park was beautiful and much better than most of the others, which really turned out to be glorified parking lots. We lucked out.
But Amazon had uncertain schedules at Campbellsville and that with working long shifts at a very quick pace grew tiresome. We had been in Campbellsville little over half of our required tour, and it seemed we were no nearer to the end than when we began. Our promised overtime had not materialized and we had also found there might be trouble at home- Rhonda’s mom was hospitalized for tests and we feared the results.
With that introduction aside, here is what we found the Fulfillment Center to be all about. There are several excellent videos posted on YouTube both describing and showing Amazon’s vaunted inner workings and are worth a look if you are interested. (We were not allowed to bring cameras inside the Fulfillment Center so we rely on these posted online.)
The Fulfillment Center at Campbellsville was one of Jeff Bezo’s three original centers. Converted from a mill and clothing factory, it was, and is Campbellsville’s largest employer. Recently renovated and now housing about 60% apparel with 40% remaining for other goods, the place is VAST. But it is not one of Amazons most automated Fulfillment Centers. Under one roof are three “buildings,” divided into twelve modules (“mods”) of shelving and bins on as many as four levels. Conveyor belts run for miles at all levels. Automated trains follow “tracks” taped on the floor carrying product from place to place while “whistling” little caution tunes that sound familiar, but are not quite recognizable as copyrighted songs.
I had hoped to hear one whistling “Hi-ho hi-ho it’s off to work we go,” or the “Yo-ee-oo ooh, ooh” tune from the guards around the witch’s castle in The Wizard of Oz, but not so.
These trains have the right of way, but are equipped with sensors and bumpers to detect obstacles, and as they move a brisk two miles per hour, you are never really in danger of being plowed over. Amazon Associates, of whom we were two, move along “The Green Mile*,” a taped pathway winding amidst, between, and through it all. The Mile has its own red stop signs and traffic direction signs. Yellow totes are stacked everywhere, waiting to be filled with product and loaded onto trains or conveyors where they are moved from the product picking bin areas to sorting, and packaging stations and back again. The pictures in this link are of various Amazon Fulfillment Centers, but portray the size and scope of the environment.
The first priority for associates at an Amazon Fulfillment center is safety; hence, the two mph freight trains. The second is accuracy, this ensures Amazon’s prized customer base will be entirely satisfied every time. And third is worker productivity. Workers all attend a safety school, and several job training schools. There are rules and definitions, processes and goals to be learned, all necessary to get the 2,000 people employed at this facility during “Peak” to do efficient, reliable work without injury to personnel or damage to product.
Managers are employed to empower the workers to do their jobs correctly, and to a person, each manager we encountered was personable, very knowledgeable, and an all around good person. At least 70% of them are former military personnel. These men and women are young, disciplined, fit, and ready to work within a command structure. And on the personnel level this all works. At Campbellsville, CamperForce Associates are respected and encouraged. A positive mood is deliberately fostered and it is easy to become a member of The Force.
INBOUND–Half of the FC’s (Fulfillment Center’s) function is to take product from trucks, inventory it, inspect it, sort it into workable categories and stow it into bins. That’s the part where we came in. We are stowers.
OUTBOUND–Once in the bins, pickers gather these hundreds of thousands of different products, one at a time, at the behest of an online customer, and ship them to that customer or to another FC where the customer’s order will be completed and shipped out.
The Pickers find specific products, stack them into a yellow tote and place the tote on one of the conveyer belts where it travels to Sorting. Sorters combine orders and them onto Packing. Like every associate in every part of the process, Packers double check the product. They are told by the system which size box to use and then they box it and tape it up. Shipping labels are printed automatically and applied and the box is off to shipping and into the customers’ hands often within 48 hours.
The scope is amazing, the jobs are discreet and varied and all of it works together. On one typically busy Peak day 120,000 customers were served from our Campbellsville Center alone. It’s how Amazon’s 2015 Annual Revenue came to be 107 Billion Dollars.
As part of the Inbound Team, we were given the job of stower, which entails getting product from UBoat carts which held taped up boxes of product, or Juice Carts which held product already de-boxed and sorted. The boxes on the UBoat held product with Amazon ASIN bar code tags already in place, put there by the manufacturer.
The UBoat and the Juice cart are both manufactured to allow passage through the aisles. At times, when stowers have to pass each other, the carts fit side by side with one inch to spare. Some stowers are wider than their carts…use your imagination. The Juice Carts held product which was sorted and tagged by others in the Campbellsville receiving and prep departments before us. We stowers got our product from a pickup area near the area where it is to be stowed.
We scanned each piece individually and, while we still had that piece in hand, stow it in an appropriate sized bin and scan the bin. These bins themselves are not organized by their contents, and in any given bin you may find any sort of thing…a case of canned dog or cat food, motor oil, Woody from Toy Story, a mask of Hillary Clinton, two dozen decks of Card Against Humanity, a Barbie Doll, a couple of Santa’s beards, and condoms could all inhabit the same bin simply because they fit. (Actually this is too many different types of items for one bin, the limit is any number of only five different products per bin, but you get the picture.)
More about the dog and cat food later.
All this defied my imagination at first glance. How could anybody find anything in this mess? It was very organized on the surface but looking at those bins blew me away. Jeff Bezos and his Amazon Associates have a secret which makes it all work…data.
The data keeper was the hand scanner given to each associate and carried everywhere. Nothing done with product could be done without a scanner. Stowers run apps to tell the scanner(s) where we put the products so pickers could come to the exact bin and retrieve the treasured item.
Stowing is simple: pick an item, scan it, put it in the bin and scan the bin. Repeat—a thousand times a day. So is it very easy to pick an item, scan it and try to put it into a bin and find it doesn’t fit there. So you find another bin, to fit the item, put it in there, and (perhaps) forget to scan that one.
Errors are easy to make, but we had Angels there to help us…Problem Solvers. These are full time associates who get no more pay than us, but who access different computer systems via laptops and mobile computers to solve such problems. And there can be other problems. Often bar codes don’t match or simply won’t scan. Non-apparel items cannot be stowed in apparel mods but are sometimes sent there by mistake. Bins and drawers have to have the correct count of everything in them. So, if we know we made a mistake, we request a bin count and Problem solvers help us with that. They are remarkable. They work on ten or twelve problems at once and the Problem Solvers we worked with were always the nicest people. Thank heaven (and Amazon) for Problem Solvers.
Stower scanner apps also have rudimentary reminders of how to stow, whether and what you’ve stowed, and if the bin was full of too many different kinds of things. It also posts the item on line as being “in stock” on Amazon.com and available for a customer to order the instant it is stowed into a bin. Twice I stowed an item and as I walked away from that bin, only a minute later, a Picker came behind me to pick that very item to ship it off to a customer. Blew me away.
Amazon’s technology is FANTASTIC.
We were not trained as Pickers, so my information here is from observation only–On those same scanners, picker apps show the Building, Mod, Aisle, Level, and Bin number, all of which is encoded in a label. Having learned the layout of the FC, pickers know where to find any bin in 1.2 million square feet of the Campbellsville Fulfillment Center. Pickers typically walk ten to twelve miles a day, and on busy days half again that many. They get to the bin, scan it to be sure they are in the right place, then they get to read the description of the product they need. This description is exactly what you see online when you purchase the item. When a picker thinks he or she has found it, they scan the product to verify it, and if correct place it in a yellow tote (which also has its own bar code,) it is registered, and begins its journey to the customer. From this point, the very point that a picker scans it, Amazon can track the progress of that order.
Once a picker gets an order on his scanner to pick something, that item can be in the customer’s hands in two days…any pressure there?
That all this works is a technological marvel, made possible by wi-fi, handheld computers, automated trains, sorters, conveyors and so much more . It is a wonder to see and is a small universe within itself. But the most important element, the human element, is where CamperForce Workers come in.
Amazon's business famously peaks around the holidays, their needs for staffing nearly double at that time. Workers of a certain age are known for their reliability, skillsets and tenacity.
In short, retirees are welcomed as ideal workers. As a plus, retired RV’ers are mobile and can arrive and depart as Amazon needs them. Amazon developed its seasonal workforce program into a work camper project, and tapped that specific source of labor–full timers who choose to live light and travel much also come to fill the need.
Amazon pays $10.50 an hour, guarantees 40 hours a week from the Campers start date until the week before Christmas and requires at least two 50 hour weeks during that time. 60 hour weeks are also promised as optional. Campsites are paid, and at the rate of about $30 a day for full hook-ups with showers, bath and some form of recreation provided, this adds a great value to full time campers who need places to park. Overall the pay is pretty good, and if two campers who travel together both work, the value is even greater.
CamperForce includes another group, those whose only affordable home is an RV or travel trailer, and who travel around the country in search of jobs. Though often unnoticed by recreational RV’ers, these folks are growing in number and have their own communities on the road and online. In our experience at Campbellsville, the mix was about 2 to 1 of retirees to younger workers.
Every person in the plant is polite and professional. If you ask to pass by a worker while doing your job, (remember that one extra inch?) the response is, “No, you’re good,” or “no, honey, you’re good.” I have to explain two things. First, as the result of a rebellious brain working a mind numbing job, my mind wandered. Second, Rhonda and I did the same job throughout our tour there. She was much more accurate than I, making one mistake to my twenty or thirty. I did not find it easy to do the highly vaunted Standard Work that Amazon requires, and thankfully, I no longer have to.
We are unsure about doing Amazon again. On balance~ There are higher wages at the sugarbeet harvest ($12.84 with time and a half after eight hours, time and a half all day Saturday and double time on Sunday) and shorter, though MUCH harder and more stressful work for only 15 days. This may beat out Amazon's lower pay over a much longer period in a friendly, though faster environment while missing Thanksgiving and most of the Christmas season. Because we left early and Campbellsville offered us no overtime, we actually made much more at the sugarbeet harvest in two weeks than we did at Amazon over five weeks.
But we did meet many nice people in both places and the decision hasn't really been made yet.
…to be continued…
NOTE: The night his draft was begun we found Rhonda’s mom needed surgery. Rhonda wanted badly to get home, and it looked like our s=normally scheduled three days off would allow us to drive home to be there the following week and drive back for work. At the very same time this happened we had heard rumblings that we might be let go three weeks early and this would coincide with our needs and perhaps we might just actually end our tour. That did indeed happen. We made it home and all went very well with Mom's operation and test results and and recuperation and we were home for Christmas.
CAT AND DOG FOOD NOTE: The reason Amazon did not schedule overtime for us involved pet food. Amazon opened a new Fulfillment Center in Ohio and needed to fill it with product. Trucks that were originally meant for Campbellsville were diverted to Columbus. The “leftovers” from these shipments came to Campbellsvile. These included clothing and other articles and literally tons of pet food in boxes, bags, and cans. While these happen to be very big sellers on Amazon year round, they were not seasonal items and we Workcampers were not needed.
Amazon is nonetheless an amazing place and many work campers return year after year.