Since the internet took off and began to spawn one multibillion-dollar business after another, it has altered the landscape in almost every industry it has touched. Some of that was due to the advances that the underlying technology made possible, creating new efficiencies and expanding markets across national borders through eCommerce. But those aforementioned multibillion-dollar technology companies have had an even more direct effect on the global economy at large, too – and none more so than Amazon.
In some instances, they've made products and services cheaper, more convenient, and more accessible to consumers all over the world. That's certainly the case with Amazon's core online eCommerce business. At the same time, however, they've built that service on the backs of legions of overworked fulfillment center workers, who face difficult and tenuous working conditions with no end in sight.
We're only beginning to start feeling the social ramifications of how Amazon does business, and it is still far from clear how it's all going to work out. In the meantime, it's probably a good idea for people to pay attention to some of the other things the ubiquitous retailer has in the pipeline, to try and figure out how it's going to impact our economy and the workers that power it. To that end, here's a look at one of Amazon's most recent announcements, and what to make of it in the broader context of what may be coming next and why it matters.
Amazon Turns to Training
The big recent Amazon announcement that deserves some scrutiny is its new plan to spend upwards of $700 million to retrain a full third of its workforce to do more tech-centered jobs. On the surface, this looks like something that should be good for the majority of Amazon's employees. It indicates that the retailer is taking the threat that automation and AI pose to their employees' job security seriously, and is starting to take some proactive steps to deal with that. A closer look at how the retailer's going about their plan, however, might reveal that Amazon has a much broader goal in mind.
Last year, the company announced that it had hired Candace Thille, a well-respected education technologist, as its director of learning science and engineering. Her resume provides a pretty good indication that Amazon intends to build its own learning management system (LMS) to flesh out its training initiative, rather than relying on established online course providers to handle the job. In that case, the effort would seem to mirror what the tech giant did in creating its AWS platform and taking it public – and that's where there may be cause for concern.
Magnanimous Employer or Monopolist?
The reason that the public launch of an Amazon-powered LMS may be of concern is the fact that it would represent a major disruption of the education sector, by a heavyweight no learning institution could hope to counter. In such a scenario, Amazon would be all but sure to run its tried-and-true playbook to gain an unassailable position in the broader learning industry, which may not bode well for the future of the economy as a whole.
Imagine, for instance, a world where Amazon became the gatekeeper for technology education access. In such a position, they could control not only how many people gained the skills they'll need to survive in the 21st-century economy, but also what those skills are. That would be disturbing, to say the least.
A Wary Glimpse at the Future of Education
Photo: kirill_makarov / Adobe Stock
If Amazon comes to dominate the education sector, is there any doubt that they would place their own business needs above those of the students they train? It's quite easy to foresee a scenario where Amazon uses their newfound education dominance to take their pick of the top available talent, while simultaneously neglecting to emphasize the skills needs of their competitors. As a profit-driven business, could they be reasonably expected to do anything less?
Anyone who's been paying attention to the company's recent history should understand why this has the potential to be a big, troubling development. Already, Amazon's facing growing scrutiny of its monopolistic tactics in other sectors, and it's still uncertain whether regulators will make any real effort to rein them in. If they don't, we may be a few short years away from an Amazon-centric education industry – and that would be bad for all involved.
Of course, it's also possible that Amazon has no designs greater than to keep their own talent pipeline full. If so, this is much ado about nothing. If not, though, there's no telling how far Amazon intends to go in this all-important sector, so stay tuned.