By Alistair Barr
(Reuters) - Amazon.com Inc Chief Executive Jeff Bezos launched a recruiting drive on the front page of the company's website on Monday as the largest Internet retailer seeks staff for its vast and expanding network of warehouses.
Bezos unveiled the Amazon Career Choice Program, which will pay up to $8,000 over four years for employees to take technical and vocational courses in high-demand areas including engineering, information technology, transportation and accounting. Amazon said full-time hourly employees in the United States who have worked at the company for at least three years qualify for the program.
Bezos, in a letter to customers posted on Amazon.com, said the company pays employees at its storage and distribution warehouses 30 percent more than retail store staff. He also highlighted productivity and safety improvements.
The company is expanding its network of storage and distribution warehouses, which it calls fulfillment centers, across the United States as it tries to cut shipping times to compete more with traditional retailers.
The drive has increased Amazon's demand for employees, something that is especially true during the holiday season.
"For most of the year, our full-time fulfillment center employees can keep up with customer demand," Bezos wrote in his letter. "But during the holiday gift-giving season, our peak needs temporarily double."
Last year, Amazon said it spent $2.4 million installing air conditioning in some of its warehouses after a report about worker complaints at a facility in Breinigsville, Pennsylvania. Some employees there described long hours in hot conditions and some sought medical attention, according to the report by The Morning Call of Allentown.
In a statement at the time, Amazon highlighted a "focus on employee safety."
On Monday, Bezos said Amazon's work on safety practices "has been so effective that it's statistically safer to work in an Amazon fulfillment center than in a traditional department store."
Scott Tilghman, an analyst at Caris & Company, said Amazon has satisfied questions about working conditions in its warehouses, and the company likely has a lot of job applicants, given the weak labor market.
But he said Amazon's recent acquisition of Kiva Systems, which makes robots that automate some of the work in fulfillment centers, may make Amazon warehouse staff, and others considering working there, nervous about job security.
"They acquired Kiva. Kiva replaces people," said Tilghman. "How are you going to hire people if they think they will be replaced over time?"
He said Amazon may be able to address this concern by helping warehouse workers learn new, more technical skills.
Amazon may be able to hire the staff it needs in the short term, and if some are replaced by Kiva robots in the future they may have enough new skills to get another job, or even be re-hired by Amazon in a more technical position, Tilghman said.
The Amazon Career Choice Program pays tuition and other course costs upfront, rather than reimbursing employees afterwards. The program does not apply to bachelors or masters degree course work, but online course work is eligible, according to the company's website.
(Reporting by Alistair Barr in San Francisco; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Leslie Adler)