Technology means better jobs, fewer workers at Inland Empire warehouses

The sprawling Skechers distribution center as seen from an east Moreno Valley neighborhood
The sprawling Skechers distribution center as seen from an east Moreno Valley neighborhood
Steven Cuevas

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The Inland Empire’s sprawling warehouse industry offers companies acres of storage space. Warehouses also employ about 180,000 Inland workers. At least, they do now, but that could change soon. That’s because the newest warehouses with the newest technology need fewer workers.

Skechers’ North American distribution headquarters in Moreno Valley is so big, workers hop on big blue bicycles to pedal from one side to another. Big enough to land a jetliner, says Jamil Dada of the Riverside County Workforce Investment Board.

“When you come descending over the Coachella Valley, you first see the Salton Sea as a landmark, and then now you see this huge building,” says Dada. “It’s 42 football fields.”

It’s also the most advanced of its kind, says Iddo Benzeevi. His company — Highland Fairview — built this 1.8- million-square-foot logistics palace. Benzeevi can often be found shepherding wide-eyed visitors through the cavernous half-mile long warehouse.

“As those companies grow and consolidate, it drives the need for these larger facilities,” says Benzeevi.

Inside the Skechers warehouse a sleek Japanese-built stacker crane sweeps along a track between 25-foot high shelves. The robotic retrieval system picks and packs boxes of shoes for delivery — about 20,000 an hour.

Here’s how a video by the manufacturer Diafuku describes the system:

“The birth of an automated warehouse system beyond anything imagined before. This system operates two stacker cranes on a single aisle,” explains the video.

“For example, small items such as cardboard boxes can be loaded speedily by a single crane. Of all the superior features, by far the greatest is its ultra-high productivity.”

Iddo Benzeevi says the automated robotics system solves a lot of issues.

“And also opens up a tremendous amount of opportunities for what you can do with the system,” says Benzeevi.

Iddo Benzeevi pitched the automated mega-warehouse idea three years ago. Moreno Valley leaders eagerly approved it, buoyed by the promise of new jobs — lots of them, says Jamil Dada.

“I think with Skechers in Phase One, we’re looking at 1,400 jobs. And I think in Phase Two, we’re probably up to 2,400.”

This at a time when Moreno Valley’s jobless rate is 14.5 percent — nearly double the national average. Enter Skechers, a shimmering jobs oasis in a flat, arid economy. When it broke ground two years ago, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the project could employ 3,000 people. Skechers says they’ve hired 600.

“I drove in their parking lot and counted their cars. So you know what? It’s a load of crap there’s 600 people working there! How many lies are you going to continue to tell us?!”

At a hearing over a proposed Highland Fairview warehouse, Moreno Valley resident Deanna Reeder challenged developer Iddo Benzeevi over the jobs claims.

“The brochure says: Highland Fairview. On the back, it says 3,500 new jobs, $150 million in economic benefits. That didn’t come and it’s not going to,” said Reeder.

But Moreno Valley’s economic development director Barry Foster says critics got it wrong.

“Well, I think the original number that was used was about 2,500 jobs — but that included not only the Skechers project, “ says Foster. “There’s two other expansion phases that are allowed there, and there will be more jobs produced with that.”

Foster says the Skechers jobs could have moved out of state but didn’t. The region needs the jobs the company can bring, says Paul Granillo. He’s president of Inland Empire Economic Partnership.

“The jobs that are available in the Sketchers building: If you’re not top of your class from ITT Tech, if you don’t have the ability to work with computers, to work with robotics, you’re not going to be working in that building,” says Granillo. “Those are higher paying jobs that the Inland Empire needs.”

As other Inland warehouses upgrade their technology, a lot of less skilled, lower paying jobs will vanish – and the regional workforce of 180,000 will shrink. Developer Iddo Benzeevi says many of the jobs that stay will pay a lot more money.

“Which is really when you think, in the globalized picture, it’s the kind of jobs we need in America. It’s less jobs, higher paying jobs, but it’s the right kind of jobs.”

It’ll mean a transformation of the Inland Empire’s warehousing industry and maybe a dramatic shift in its economic fortunes.