Peter Titlebaum is a professor at the University of Dayton
Every time the Amazon van drove by, I reflected on how those hard-working drivers were the unsung heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic. I wondered—could I join them?
I am a 60-year-old college professor, a 28-year veteran in my field. In May 2020, just finishing my sabbatical at the University of Dayton and looking for a new adventure, I started thinking it would be a great time to see if I could get a job. I had no place I had to be until the start of the second summer session two months later, for a sport marketing class that I would be teaching on-line.
One of the skills I insist my students absorb is methodologies to gain employment. Trying to get a job in the middle of a pandemic, with more than 40 million people out of work, could prove to be a valuable experience—and a way to practice what I preach. It was important to be cautious as I am at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 due to my age. This prompted a discussion with my doctor who agreed with my plan as long as I maintained the standard precautions of wearing a mask and wiping down my hands regularly. Otherwise, he saw no issue with me driving and delivering packages.
After two weeks of applying for driving positions, I scored an interview with Amazon. This was particularly exciting for me since I teach interviewing skills and now I would get a chance to be on the other side and become the interviewee. It went well. I received the job offer.
Before allowing me to drive one of those impressive blue vans, I had to pass a drug test, complete eight hours of online training, score above 80% on a 50-question test, and finish in-person onboarding.
After I joined their team, I gained much respect for Amazon drivers. This is a challenging job, both physically and emotionally. At the start of the shift, I received my assigned van and a route number. Next, I signed onto an app called Mentor that allows drivers to scan in their van number and do a walkthrough of the vehicle. This process takes place at the start and end of the day. This app tracks our driving, and looks for speeding, hard braking, and distracted driving. Yes, Big Brother was watching!
I drove in a convoy with all the other vans to the Amazon station and picked up my packages for the day. It was organized chaos. Then I signed into the official Amazon app on a phone they provided. Getting all your packages loaded into the van is a challenge. Packages and envelopes are organized into bins for the route and numbered in their order of delivery, which helps a great deal as you go on your way for the day. However, all the odd/big/heavy packages get put in the back of the van and loaded as best as possible. It is a good thing I excelled at Tetris as a child.
Keep in mind, this must be done quickly since another group needs to fill their vans as soon as you pull out of the lot. While not as fast as an Indy 500 pit stop, it is pretty nerve racking. With this app, you scan all the packages in your van and scan them again when you take them out of the van. In most cases, you take a picture of the package at the drop-off location. Amazon’s app has mapped the order of all the package deliveries and the driving directions. However, life rarely goes as planned due to construction, traffic, or the need to find an alternate route into a development. Life is never dull.
It is important to share what I learned about the people that are on the front line in this service industry. They bring a can-do attitude to the workplace, even if their workspace is on four wheels and subject to the rules of the road. If I had questions about the job or a procedure, they were always willing to help someone on the team.
I would look forward to coming home and telling my wife Deb about my day. The stories were about various interesting people and the sights from delivering packages to $2 million homes, to getting stuck in a driveway and requiring a tow truck to get out. My most memorable delivery was out in the country and I had to drive down a long gravel road where I could not see the house from the main road. There were lots of ruts in the road and vegetation on both sides of the gravel driveway. As I was getting closer to the house, I found a gate crossing the driveway that said “no trespassing.” I opened the gate, pulled the van in, left the van to close the gate, and got back in to drive the rest of the way. Next, I drove another quarter mile to the home. I left the van holding the envelope, intending to walk to the door. To my surprise, a potbellied pig that must tip the scale at 250 lbs. greeted me. In addition, I saw horses, cows, dogs and a peacock. This must be Dr. Doolittle’s sanctuary. After delivering the package, I returned to the van and went through the whole drive in reverse. The thought struck me that this was a scene right out of Breaking Bad. I could have been kidnapped and the van stolen, and nobody would have ever known.
It is important to understand that once you start up a driveway, it may not be that easy to turn back around. Most people are familiar with the k-turn or the more common three-point turn. This is a maneuver to turn the vehicle around so you can head back in the right direction. Well, in a van this size, let’s just say sometimes it might take 21 points or more to turn around a van!
I learned, even at 60, that I could still pivot, adapt, and find a new gig. I found that people still look forward to getting packages—especially during this time of isolation—and offer a smile for those who bring them. People gave me water bottles and granola bars, and I even received a $10 tip from a nice older woman. I guess I must look good in my Amazon reflective vest and shorts.
The experiment lasted for six weeks of 12-hour shifts and I delivered more than 200 packages a day. My supervisors were happy to have me and disappointed I was leaving but it was time to go back to my college job. If I ever want to go back, they would be happy to have me again. It is always nice to be wanted.
Several lessons learned, both expected and unplanned. I am truly grateful that I did not take this job as an Amazon driver due to job loss or furlough. That, for many, is necessary in today’s redefined workforce. My mission was to do something out of my comfort zone, so mission accomplished. I learned that I need to be continuously finding ways to challenge myself in order to grow. In the process, I earned a great story to share with my students and a bit of pocket change as well. Trust me, if I needed to do it again I am now confident that I have the skills.