With a subdued but steady hum, the 5,000-pound forklift zipped backwards, slid to a stop, glided forward again and turned down the warehouse aisle between racks of boxes that stretched more than a hundred yards in both directions and rose 70 feet toward the ceiling.
The machine – this one, a variety known as an order picker – eased to a halt and its two long, steel blades began climbing into the air, ascending to the level of the top shelf, where they moved forward and slipped smoothly into a wooden pallet, lifted it, then backed off and lowered to the floor.
At the controls stood Sam Smith, a composed calm on his face.
In the metro Atlanta economy, the buzz may be about exotic techie talents and office jobs in glitzy new corporate headquarters. But there is also a quiet demand for people without coding skills or college degrees, people with certain blue collar specialties.
Like driving a forklift.
“I came out of the army and I looked around for something useful, where I could make a living, and my first job they trained me on an order picker,” he said. “Twenty years later, it just seems like second nature to me.”
A lot of energy has been spent persuading young people to pursue college or an advanced degree. Georgia has been more aggressive than most – with the HOPE scholarship – in trying to grease the skids to the campus.
Yet the stampede toward degrees has combined with a strong economy and a surge in logistics to leave holes in the workforce where there used to be a surplus of blue collar skills. It hasn't slowed growth – at least not yet – but an economy that needs database developers also needs welders, plumbers, truckers, painters and air conditioning technicians.
And forklift drivers.
So in some sectors, like construction and logistics, there is at least a momentary advantage to workers – an opportunity to find a steady job, decent pay and a chance someday to climb into management.
Smith, for instance, hopes to advance someday. Right now, he works at Distribution Cooperative Inc. in McDonough, a medical supply company, from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., he said. “I am on and off the machine from the moment I clock in to the moment I clock out.”
He scoffs at the notion that the job could be done by just any laborer, that you don’t have to be skilled and careful. “They think that we are uneducated, that it’s an entry-level job, and that is not the truth… It is also about situational awareness. You could hurt or even kill somebody.”
It is not a job you’d want to hire for casually, agreed Christy Wrape, assistant to the executive director at the 423,000 square-foot distribution center where Smith works.
“You can’t just have somebody operating the equipment and going up to the heights they do and not know what they are doing,” she said. “They are not just moving boxes.”
Unlike [during] the depressed economy of a few years back, a worker with a needed skill isn’t a supplicant simply grateful to have a job, said Larry Feinstein, chief executive of Hire Dynamics, a staffing company with 34 branches through the southeast.
"They are always in some demand, so we often have to find people who are already working," he said. "People in this market will jump for more pay."
Which is why typical pay for forklift operators – once in spitting distance of minimum wage — has been rising.
Hire Dynamics is getting a growing number of requests from employers for forklift operators, he said. "They start typically at $14 to $17 an hour. Some people might try paying as low as $12 an hour, but they won't have much success."
It’s fundamental, said Michael Wald, former Labor Department economist: When supply is tight, you need to offer more to get what you want.
“Younger workers make trade-offs between pay, status, and future opportunities,” he said. “Unless employers can fix this, they will continue to have recruitment problems as long as the economy remains strong. Companies will be forced to raise wages and recruit unconventional workers – including more women for jobs that are traditionally male oriented.”
It is a sign of an industry surging faster than the overall economy.
Warehouse jobs are up 90 percent since 2000 and that trajectory has carried forklift drivers along, according to Andrew Flowers, economist for the massive Internet job board Indeed: "The share of all job postings that were for forklift drivers has more than doubled in the past four years."
E-commerce fuels the surge, and growth is so strong it has – at least so far – more than made up for jobs lost when warehouses and stores of chains like Sports Authority and Toys 'r Us close. "Over the next decade, warehouse jobs are expected to be in the 95th percentile for job growth," he said.
For every forklift driver employed at a huge retailer, there are 13 forklift drivers in a warehouse, Flowers said.
For metro Atlanta, the trend is especially pronounced: with the world's busiest airport, a confluence of highways – plus millions of consumers — the region is a distribution hub for massive companies like Amazon and Walmart and many smaller companies, as well as the huge delivery networks of FedEx and Sandy Springs-based UPS.
Historically, workers without a college education are not only paid less than those with degrees, but they also have a consistently higher unemployment rate.
That is still true: The jobless rate for workers with less than a high school diploma is only 5.7 percent, but that is more than double the rate for workers with at least a college degree. The unemployment rate for people with a high school diploma is 4.4 percent – and even that is nearly twice as high those with college degrees.
And while there are no precise statistics on the jobless rate for workers who can drive a forklift, it has to be close to zero.
When Hire Dynamics, for example, is trying to find a forklift operator for a client, it generally tries to lure away someone who is already employed.
And in the McDonough warehouse, as the very-employed Smith finished talking to a reporter and whizzed away down the corridor to his next assignment, Brandon Johnston approached a line of forklifts, looking for the right one to start up.
Johnson, 32, of McDonough, has been driving a forklift for a decade, he said. “I’m still getting better and better at it.”
It’s not a job for getting rich, but it is a dependable, respectable paycheck, Johnson said. “You can get a job at any warehouse, if you can drive a forklift.”
Typical pay, metro Atlanta: $14-$17 an hour
Pay, national average: $16.47 an hour
Job postings, per million jobs, 2014: 787
Job postings, per million jobs, 2018: 1,595
Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Hire Dynamics, Indeed.com
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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC