How Amazon’s Retired-RV-Driver-Army Always Saves Christmas

Here a few facts:

  • Humans leave things until the very last minute  (I’m looking at you, because you must likely had to splurge on One-Day Shipping last week because you decided to dress up as a Lifeguard on the almost last day possible.)
  • Americans buy LOTS of presents during the Holiday season.
  • We buy most of these presents online, because what do we have to lose with free shipping?
  • Someone needs to go fulfill these orders and ship the exorbitant amount of packages to us during the holidays.
  • Amazon needs an especially large swarm of workers during Christmastime.

Thus, led to Amazon’s acquisition of an army of retired RV drivers.

If you’re not confused by this point, then you probably haven’t been reading closely enough. Yes, Amazon has an “army” of retired RV drivers. This army, referred to as CamperForce, is actively being recruited for by Amazon HR representatives in the hopes of preserving Christmas cheer by picking up seasonal workers to fulfill Christmas orders.

 

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How the 2008 Financial Crisis Led to CamperForce

Take Barb and Chuck Stout, for example. Prior to the financial crisis, they happily ran “Carolina Adventure Tours” and gave music lessons on the side. Then one day Chuck received a call from Wells Fargo informing him that his $250,000 investment, which gave him $4,000 per month to survive, had turned into $0. Faced with bankruptcy, credit card debt, and an imploding mortgage, they had no choice but to sell all of their possessions, house, and car. In 2012 they decided on a feasible solution for their low-income life: living in an RV.

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The Stouts were not alone with this decision. The number of RV drivers steadily increased as many other retired folks found their retirement investments depleted after the crisis. They also had no reason to stay stationary: why not drive across America? This new nomadic lifestyle permeated across the country, but each new nomad still had one issue: no income or saved money to live on.

In the quest for cash to allow them to afford basic necessities, many drivers took up routine work at the RV campsites. The Stouts began in Utah by welcoming campers, running an office, and cleaning up the campsite. Unfortunately, this still didn’t provide enough money in order to pay for parking their RV at the campsite and utilities. Luckily, they learned of the website, Workers on Wheels, an online job forum for those living in a mobile home. From a posting on the site, they entered the world of Amazon.

Keeping Santa Alive

As Amazon began to take off in the 2000s, the company found itself with a problem. Their order requests spiked during the holidays, but they didn’t have the bandwidth to fulfill these orders in a timely manner. Santa’s reputation was at stake. Then in 2008, in light of the financial crisis, they had an idea: they decided to hire this increased demographic of nomadic RV drivers to work in a facility in Coffeyville, Kansas. It was a success.

The following Christmas, they decided to expand the program to other facilities: Kentucky and Nevada welcomed the new hires with open arms. These nomadic people were perfect for fulfillment facilities in rural areas of America and a dream from an HR standpoint. As mostly sixty or seventy-year-olds, they understood the working world and knew what to expect. The workers were simply happy to just have a job and didn’t require much in terms of benefits: they showed up when asked and left when they were done. Then when Christmas rolled around, they packed up their belongings and left. In return, Amazon paid for them to park their RV and basic utilities along with an hourly wage. It was the perfect opportunity for both: a practical income stream for the drivers and temporary bodies to assuage the hectic holiday season for Amazon. Christmas was saved.

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As time progressed, the recruiting efforts ramped up. HR representatives visited popular campsites in the hope of finding more workers. They attended Yellowstone National Park and a motor home site in Quartzsite, Arizona. Representatives wore CamperForce T-shirts and handed out “Now Hiring” flyers and swag appealing to the mobile-home lifestyle: lip balm, notepads, windshield stickers, and even beer can koozies. They created a generous referral program to incentivize WOM through the campsites by offering $125 for each referral. Amazon even created a digital newsletter with advice from former CamperForce workers:

“Go with the flow and don’t complain, because this isn’t our profession. It is just a seasonal job. Let things roll off of your back and be open to new opportunities.”

“Prepare for long hours and get in shape by exercising before arriving at Amazon and know that time will fly by while you’re there!”

“A great way to make money, and the camaraderie within the workforce is terrific”.

It seems like a win-win, but it’s not such a breeze for the workers. Some workers have equated the warehouse work to slave labor. Oftentimes it involves walking 15 miles per day to get around the warehouse to scan in items from the delivery truck and place them on the appropriate shelf. Sometimes it even means carrying 50 pounds in 90 degree environments. It’s a young-person’s job, but sometimes the only feasible work that these retired individuals can find.

Amazon’s not alone. RV Campsite expos now have career-oriented sections with not only CamperForce recruiters but also booths looking for beet harvesters, amusement park workers, and more. The demand for seasonal labor has infiltrated these sites, and as E-commerce continues to thrive and retail falters, who knows which demographic will be targeted next.

9 comments

  1. It seems like we talk about Amazon one way or another in every class session now but I honestly had no idea about their seasonal RV program. I agree this is a dream operation for HR: getting a myriad of seasonal workers in rural locations who require low wages and little to no benefits on the side. However, it will be interesting to see if Amazon will be able to continue to hire these nomadic workers as word gets around that the working conditions are so poor. Obviously, people will do almost anything if they really need the money, but unless we see another economic crisis like that of 2008, Amazon could be in trouble for future RV recruitment.

  2. Nice post! I bet the huge problem of E-commerce is not the information technology but the logistic problem offline. Building a platform is hard, but not as hard as operations. Peak season always cause headaches to the large E-commerce companies. There is a shopping festival initiated by Alibaba in China on Nov 11 every year. The customers click purchase button crazily on that day but have to wait about half month for receiving the goods. Alibaba has been working hard on logistic for a long time and still can not solve the problem very well during peak season. Hiring more people is a way for Amazon to improve the delivery during holidays. However, this method does not solve the root problem – how to integrate online and offline logistic chain at an high efficiency level. I guess all the e-commerce including Amazon have been keep thinking since they started the business and won’t stop until they close the business.

  3. Interesting post. I had never heard about this story. Good work!

  4. Super interesting! My friends and I were joking that the BC mailroom needs to hire “seasonal workers” (aka more people working the days leading up to Halloween when everyone is picking up their costume or the second week of class when reality hit and you realized you actually needed the textbooks on the syllabus). It makes sense that they need to hire seasonal workers for their facilities. When I first saw this I assumed that they were going to hire these RV drivers to drive delivery trucks around (ya know cause they are used to driving large motor vehicles…). It just amazes me how many people Amazon employs– and this is such an interesting group.

  5. This read like a New York Times story! So interesting I had never heard about this before. It completely makes sense though. I really liked @zhouyvette point that it’s not all about creating the platform but making the operations to support it. I do wonder about the wellbeing of the labor force, as you mentioned at the end. I wonder if this would be filed under “contract work” like Uber does as well. I feel like as tech companies keep expanding, and creating large customer bases, they continually keep manipulating labor laws to support their activity… I wonder how much they get paid, besides the benefits for their lodging. I guess this is another case of the law having to catch up with tech. Also, kinda like @hilarygould I totally thought they were hiring RV owners to deliver packages during busy season…

  6. Great post! I had no idea that this program existed but it makes a lot of sense. Like @hilarygould and @lwennbie, I thought this was going to be about the RV owners delivering the packages – I wonder if they do have a program like that since they flood all of the delivery companies with their packages.

  7. What an interesting facet of the Amazon world that most of us have probably never heard of. I have always heard when Amazon does their seasonal hiring down in Stoughton, MA at their distribution center, but never something like this. Like others, when I read the title of your blog I had imagined RV drivers using their RVs to deliver packages and how that could be a disaster on tight streets, but your article explained it really well that my assumption was not correct. With people so willing to do work for such little benefits and compensation, this must be a hiring dream. One must wonder, though, how will this sustain as those whose retirements were lost in 2008 completely exit the workforce and new RV drivers may decline. Thank you for sharing!

  8. Nice post! I think Amazon has done a great job here with understanding the market of young, unemployed men and women with a pretty basic skillset – driving and manual labor. It looks like the job may at times be overwhelming and physically cumbersome, but from the quotes of former CamperForce employees that you included, it also looks like they were generally happy with the experience. I would imagine Amazon is willing and able to compensate these seasonal employees quite generously. The holiday season is the most important and highest selling period for online retailers like Amazon, and incurring even just the fraction of the total additional revenue generated from happy customers as labor costs probably doesn’t look bad at all in their financial statements. I think if Amazon is able to implement an incentive program for the highest performing Camperforce employees to provide them with full-time job offers (rather than a strictly seasonal contract), they would work more efficiently, leading to even higher holiday season sales.

  9. Really interesting post! I had no idea about this – companies have to think so creatively in order to get the type of workers they need. This is particularly interesting to me because Amazon has a reputation of treating warehouse workers badly, but these workers return year after year. I wonder if they’re acting better, or they just offer something the people can’t find elsewhere.

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