What Are Distribution Center Jobs?

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What the heck are warehouse center jobs? To answer this question, we need to take a look at how modern companies like Walmart, Amazon, Lowes and others work.

 

A typical medium-small distribution center

A typical medium-small distribution center
Image via Flickr
Author Nick Saltmarsh

The first thing to understand is the truly enormous volume of goods that flows through these distribution systems. Lowe’s, to choose one example at random, has over 1700 stores, and serves over 14 million customers every week. In another example, Costco has 55 million members; this is more people than the entire populations of Greece, Portugal, Belgium, and Australia all added together. These are truly gigantic distribution systems we are discussing here.

 

Now, how do these mountains of goods, (or more like entire mountain ranges of goods), all find their way into the store, so that when you go to the local K-Mart looking for a box of cherry-flavored Moon Pies, they are there on the shelf for you to buy? Well, it’s a complex process in the details, but easy enough to understand in the overview.

 

At its very simplest, compressed and simplified into a single sentence, it works like this – a warehouse center receives goods from manufacturers and vendors by the truckload or boxcar load, stores those goods as needed, and then distributes those goods to nearby retail locations by the pallet load in response to orders.

 

The factors driving this are mainly economic, and the efficiency with which a chain’s distribution network functions is a significant factor in determining the prices at which those goods are sold to the consumer.

 

Warehousing something yields no profit, in and of itself. A retail store cannot afford to warehouse much, simply because retail space is expensive, in terms of cost per square foot. It is just not economically possible to pay for that much space in a retail location that is not used for actual retail selling. So, the actual warehousing is mostly done in the warehouse centers, which are located on the outskirts of a city, where the cost per square foot is relatively low. Keep in mind that a large distribution may be over three million square feet.

 

But this means that the system must be very responsive, so that when the Lowe’s near your house runs out of left-handed purple widgets, the truck from the warehouse center arrives soon with more left-handed purple widgets to replenish their supply. Actually, how it should work is that as soon as the store’s stock of widgets falls below a certain level, the manager of the widget department orders more and poof, the order arrives before the store runs out.

 

Out at the warehouse center, however, there are anywhere from 25 to 125 retail stores placing orders. So what happens if the new Harry Potter movie with magic purple widgets results in a sudden surge of widget sales, and all 73 retail locations serviced by the warehouse center order widgets at once, causing the warehouse center to exhaust its supply of widgets? Well, in that case, someone in a fancy suit gets fired. This is never supposed to happen, and there are elaborate systems of sales tracking and demand prediction in place to try to prevent it, but all of this requires an enormous amount of information to flow back and forth. There are computer inventory and tracking systems which are supposed to keep everything organized, but in the end it all comes down to human effort and human error.

 

As an amusing example, the garden department of my local Walmart was out of a particular variety of potting soil for 6 months. But the manager of the department refused to order any more, because the computer inventory system said he had seven units in stock. I showed him the empty spot on the shelf, where there were obviously zero units in stock. That didn’t matter to him, because his inventory said there were seven units in his store somewhere. Now, if the manager in question had been in possession of two brain cells to rub together, he would have known how to do an adjustment to the inventory, and been willing to do so when his nose was rubbed in the obvious inaccuracy. This sort of thing usually doesn’t happen, and indeed cannot happen, or the system wouldn’t work. But it’s still a good example of how the system must rely on good management in order to function properly.

 

So, what are some typical warehouse center jobs?

Typical propane-powered forklift

Typical propane-powered forklift
Image from FEMA library
Author Patsy Lynch

 

 

Forklift driver – Any warehouse center needs large numbers of these, and there will be several different types of forklifts and driver jobs in any one location. The specialized types will be separately described below.

 

When the trailers arrive to be unloaded, either they will be backed up to a loading dock so that the forklifts can drive right inside, or if there is no space at the loading dock, a ramp will be put in place, so that the forklifts can drive up the ramp and go inside. The forklifts used for this will be propane-powered, for their greater power and speed. Because the unloading is carried out in large, well-ventilated areas, the fumes will not be a problem.

 

In the warehouse area, electric forklifts will be used. This is because they emit no fumes, and while slower, these permit of much better control of the cargo. The fine control is important when placing heavy pallets on a rack or removing them from a rack.

 

In the break-bulk area, where pallets are broken down to be shipped in still smaller units, pallet jacks are common, either powered or unpowered.

 

Most employers will require you to have a valid driver’s license, and your state may require a forklift safety certification of some kind, but those are not hard to obtain.

 

Inventory Clerk – Every warehouse center is subject to regular inventories, and on-going spot checks even between inventories. Thankfully, this is mostly automated, and usually involves just “shooting” the bar-coded labels on the pallets or boxes with a hand-held inventory “gun”, that either stores the information, or uploads it to a central computer via wireless.

 

This is a more important job than it seems, since the system cannot function properly in the absence of accurate inventory information. Other than showing up on time, the only real qualification you need for this job is good attention to detail, but you certainly do need that.

 

Receiver – This position involves checking in the incoming goods as they are unloaded, using an inventory “gun” very similar to that used by the Inventory Clerk. You just shoot each pallet as the forklifts unload it from the trailer or rail car, and that checks it in to the warehouse inventory.

 

Hauler – After the pallets have been unloaded and recorded by the Receiver, you pick them up with your forklift and drive them over to the warehouse area.

 

Putaway Driver – When the pallets are brought to you by the Hauler, you check them into the warehouse by shooting them with yet another inventory “gun”, (this works as a double-check on the Receivers), and then place them in the pallet racks.

 

Replenishment Driver – You are the opposite of the Putaway Driver. You take pallets out of the pallet racks, and place them in an area where they can be broken down.

 

Order Filler and Loader – Depending on the company, this may be two separate jobs or be combined into one. The pallets brought by the Replenishment Driver are broken down, and the smaller units are then re-palleted by store and department. The new pallets are wrapped, strapped, and clearly marked as to their destination, and they are then loaded into the outgoing trailers.

 

Some warehouses will have slightly different names or slightly different jobs. But in general they work the same and follow the same processes.

 

 

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