For a community anxious to diversify its job base, news that one of the world's most valuable and innovative companies is coming to town sounded almost like an answer to prayer.
While that may be the case for some people, don't get your hopes up too high: These are not the high-tech jobs often associated with the name Amazon.
The vast majority of the 1,000 to 2,000 positions expected to be created at the four-story distribution center the Seattle-based company plans to open next to Meadows Field won't pay much more than minimum wage. And given Amazon's sharp focus on improving efficiency, they won't be easy.
Now, as county officials negotiate potential tax incentives with Amazon as a way of promoting maximum employment, the question becomes how well the company's plans fit Kern County's economic diversification strategy.
The consensus among local officials is that Amazon will provide much-needed career opportunities for the kind of low-skilled workers Kern offers in abundance, plus a smaller number of relatively high-paying jobs. They expect the company's new "fulfillment center" will help smooth out employment fluctuations inherent to the region's primary industries, oil and agriculture.
Others see a less rosy side, noting the company has a pattern of pushing its employees hard while paying wages that qualify some workers for food stamps and other forms of government assistance. Amazon jobs are better than nothing, critics say, but not much better.
Cal State Bakersfield economist Richard Gearhart sees both sides. The facility expected to open within the next two years will help the underemployed more than it will the jobless because of Amazon's preference for people with recent work experience, he said. And because of the low pay, he added, some workers will likely leave for better opportunities in local oil fields.
He said the bigger benefit Amazon brings is the business-recruitment factor as other employers take notice and try to get in on what is already a growing distribution and warehousing industry in Kern County.
"I don't see (distribution work) ever really being a true driver of our economy, just by the (low-wage) nature of the jobs," Gearhart said. "But I see it being complementary to economic growth in other areas," he said, as employees spend on housing, food and other necessities.
Not all the jobs at the fulfillment center proposed just north of Merle Haggard Drive will be low-paying. Marc Wulfraat, who monitors Amazon's distribution operations as president of Canadian supply-chain consulting firm MWPVL International Inc., said about 1 of every 20 jobs at the facility will be well-paid management positions requiring specialized skills.
But for the rest, he said, jobs will likely start at $12.18 per hour, with little opportunity for career advancement. On the other hand, the benefits packages will be relatively generous, he added.
Employees' productivity will be closely watched by professional warehousemen who know how to push workers to do their best, Wulfraat said. The standards will be rigid and the working environment tough, he said.
"Those jobs are what they are," he said. "If somebody's an unskilled warehouse worker they would expect to make $27,000 per year, roughly."
"It's good news for Bakersfield overall, I would say. But it's certainly not, you know, high-paying white-collar jobs, or even skilled-labor jobs."
Amazon, which has not publicly acknowledged its local distribution center plans despite confirmation by local government and private-sector officials, made contact with The Californian but did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
The company has come under heavy criticism lately for its employment practices. A day after it reached the rare milestone of topping $1 trillion in market value, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, on Wednesday introduced a bill in Congress named after Amazon founder Jeff Bezos: Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies ("Stop BEZOS"). Premised on accusations the company doesn't pay all its workers a living wage, the bill would tax Amazon and other companies in an amount equal in value to the government assistance their employees receive.
Apart from third-party criticisms the legislation could create a disincentive for hiring the poor without necessarily leading to higher wages, Amazon has disputed Sanders' data. It said workers receiving government benefits generally opt to work part time or weren't with the company for long.
In a blog post countering Sanders' disparagement, Amazon said Aug. 29 it created more than 130,000 jobs in the last year. It said its hourly wage for a full-time worker in its fulfillment centers, including cash, stock and incentive bonuses, averages more than $15 per hour, before overtime. The company said its median domestic full-time salary — the salary at which half its U.S. employees make more and half make less — is $34,123 per year. It encouraged anyone "to compare our pay and benefits to other retailers."
Amazon called particular attention to a benefit covering 94 percent of employees' educational costs, up to $12,000, for classes related to skills in demand, even if the company has no need for them. It said 16,000 of its workers have participated in the program.
Sanders' legislation reflects growing criticism of the company's pay practices. In Ohio, where the company has expanded rapidly and now employs more than 7,000 workers statewide, the left-leaning advocacy group Policy Matters Ohio pointed to data suggesting as many as 1 in 10 company workers in the state was on some form of government assistance in August of 2017.
While some of those employees probably work part time, the group's research policy director, Zach Schiller, said the fact not all employees bring home enough money pay to meet their needs speaks badly of such a prosperous company.
"I think it's pretty easy to see that the overall level of compensation is not sufficient," he said, adding other large, nationwide retailers also have a large share of workers on some form of government aid.
A GOOD FIT?
Bakersfield workforce training and development specialist Robin Paggi noted Amazon's online materials suggest the company is not looking for people without a high school diploma or the equivalent, which would exclude 27 percent of Kern County's workforce.
"It looks like the Amazon fulfillment center jobs will be best suited for members of our community who have a high school diploma or GED and are content to make $12 per hour," she wrote in an email.
Shafter has a number of very large distribution centers that employ several thousand people doing the same kind of work those at Amazon would. City Manager Scott Hurlbert said the positions generally pay at or above minimum wage, and that they beat many agricultural and retail jobs, in part because they offer low-skilled workers a chance to take on added responsibilities that may lead to better opportunities down the road.
More importantly, because of Kern's relatively low housing costs, the jobs allow people to earn a living in the area.
"I don't think (distribution work) is the long-term answer to focus strictly on ... but I think it's a very important piece" of Kern's economic diversification strategy, Hurlbert said.
The organization most directly involved with helping diversify the county's economy, Kern Economic Development Corp., views distribution work as a great option for a region with notoriously lagging workforce readiness.
Unskilled workers get training as they go, and unlike careers in oil and ag, the jobs are often steady, long-term positions, said KEDC's director of business development, Melinda Brown.
"They can still have a quality of life, even though some people seem to think those wages are a little bit low," she said. "But if you don't have a lot of skill sets, it's a great place to start."
THE BETTER JOBS
Some of the jobs at the proposed fulfillment center will pay well by almost any standard. Local employment recruiter Laura Hill estimated the facility will employ a human resources manager making $80,000 per year or more, plus two lower-ranking HR workers earning up to $20 per hour. There will also be as many as three information technology people bringing in $75,000 or more, she said.
"The range of pay can be very low to very high depending on the qualifications of the worker," said the owner of Bakersfield-based Pinnacle Recruitment Services.
Kern County Supervisor Mick Gleason, whose 1st District encompasses the proposed Amazon site, said Kern needs to seize economic diversification opportunities as they arise. "We're trying to diversify as best we can," he said.
While he said he is not involved in the county's negotiations with Amazon on potential job-creation incentives, he said the goal is to make the best use of Kern's resources and, at the same time, contribute "the best we can to (Amazon's) success."
Kern's senior appointed officials won't discuss the ongoing incentives discussions or even elaborate on Amazon's plans, county spokeswoman Megan Person said, because the company has asked them not to.
Supervisor Mike Maggard, who used to represent the area around Meadows Field but now represents the 3rd District, sees a net benefit in Amazon's plans — and a good use of the county's incentive tools.
He noted that even if the fulfillment center provides only 1,000 jobs paying $30,000 per year, that's $30 million annually for Kern's economy.
"I think this is a perfect fit for our workforce that has proven to be trainable and eager to go to work," he said. "I think it'll work out very well."