A wing of Worldport. Photo by Melissa Chipman
A wing of Worldport. Photo by Melissa Chipman

It’s one hour into the afternoon shift at UPS Worldport on a Friday. During peak holiday shipping season. About one hour before Louisville is expecting to get slapped with the worst ice storm since 2009 (and two hours before one of the most harrowing drives I’ve ever made).

But inside Worldport, everywhere you look, people are calm.

Even though there are 155 miles of conveyors in the enormous building — enough to take you from Louisville to Lexington and back — it’s pretty quiet.

Not at all what I expected.

Inside of a cargo plane. Photo by Jim Mayer
Inside of a cargo plane. The floor allows people to push heavy containers with little effort. Photo by Jim Mayer

Jeff Wafford, UPS strategic communications, is taking me on the tour. He says reporters often ask him to show them the chaos, especially this time of year. But even though UPS is moving between a million and a million and a half packages a day, it’s “controlled and calm,” Wafford says. “Everybody has a purpose.”

A human being packed this container. Wafford compares it to playing Testris. Shipping containers are different sizes and shapes so they fit most efficiently into the curved body of a plane.
A human being packed this container. Wafford compares it to playing Tetris. Shipping containers are different sizes and shapes so they fit most efficiently into the curved body of a plane.

A package moves though Worldport in about 36 minutes. And it’s touched by human hands twice — in the off-load and the on-load of the tractor trailer or airplane container. Otherwise it’s all scanners and conveyors.

Worldport has a central core building, where all of the sorting is done, and five wings, where packages are loaded and unloaded. That’s 5.2 million square feet of floor space under one rooftop. The building is designed to move 416,000 pieces per hour. Should the company ever decide to add another wing — the building was built with growth in mind — that would up the processing potential to 498,000 per hour,

A fraction of the 155 miles of conveyor belts.
A fraction of the 155 miles of conveyor belts.

A lot has changed since Worldport opened in 2002 and since Wafford started working as a package handler 13 years ago. Back then they had to memorize zip codes. “A package got touched five or six times,” he says.

Even more has changed since operations manager David Cohen started with UPS 27 years ago. At that time, almost nothing was automated. “You were the automation,” says Cohen.

Another big change in recent years, especially this time of year, is the rise in business-to-consumer shipping. Indeed a huge number of the packages that streamed by were from Amazon, Zappos, the Vitamin Store, Best Buy and other online retailers. Oddly, we saw the same children’s drum set twice.

“Must be a good deal,” said Wafford.

Backcountry.com, an outdoor retailer, was clearly having a bad day with their label printer. I saw three packages end up in the mislabeled pile where they have to be touched a third time by a worker who scans the barcode on the package with a scanner on a ring on their finger. A new barcode sticker pops out of a printer on the worker’s hip. They replace the bad sticker with a good one and send the package back on its route.

It takes all of 10 seconds. But it’s this kind of thing that makes UPS operations nuts.

So nuts, in fact, there is a department at UPS that is on conference calls with big shippers every day, telling the big shippers how they can do their jobs better so UPS can deliver the best value to those companies.

It’s not unreasonable to think Backcountry.com got a call fussing at them about their printer problems.

Scanners and conveyors.
Scanners and conveyors

There’s a UPS package test lab in Chicago that helps shippers design better packaging for their products. There’s a shake table that simulates a ride in a UPS van. There’s a little guillotine-type contraption that tries to dent the boxes. They perform drop tests.

Still, stuff happens.

The first workstation I’m shown in Worldport is manned by people repackaging packages. This particular shipment got a little water on it, so they’re repackaging each box and inspecting the contents.

Here’s a helpful hint from the pros: Make sure you always put an address label INSIDE the box you ship. If there’s a problem with your shipping label, they’ll look inside for an address. “You’ll never even know it and it will still get there on time,” said Jim Mayer, employee communication at UPS.

During the day, a worker is in charge of 20 bags, each representing a zip code or area. At night, each worker can only handle 8 bags.
During the day, a worker is in charge of 20 bags, each representing a zip code or area. At night, each worker can only handle 8 bags.

Working for UPS has a lot of perks.

Wafford took advantage of UPS’s Metropolitan College program, which provides tuition benefitsbook reimbursementbonuses, and more to employees who work overnight air operation (third shift, Next Day Air). If you work that specific shift, UPS pays 100 percent of your tuition to the University of Louisville or Jefferson Community and Technical College, with no commitment required.

Wafford says it’s a win-win for Louisville and UPS, even if the employees terminate their employment when they graduate. UPS gets committed employees for at least four years; Louisville gets a more educated workforce.

Wafford majored in communications. But he stayed around.

De-icing the planes. The de-icer looks like orange soda and smells like maple syrup.
De-icing the planes. The de-icer looks like orange soda and smells like maple syrup.

Since Worldport opened, 158 companies have cited UPS as a reason they moved their company to Louisville, said Mayer.

UPS is the biggest employer in Louisville with around 20,000 total jobs. They add around 1,300 seasonally, starting in September and ending in January. Seasonal employees are paid $8.50 an hour and offered an incentive of $100 weekly.

All UPS package handling jobs are part-time, 20-to-30 hours a week. But this isn’t a sleazy attempt to get out of taking care of their employees. Wafford is quick to tell me these may be “part-time wages but full-time benefits.”

The shortened shipping season this year — 17 days, last year there were 23 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas — has definitely altered the rhythm of the work, says Wafford. The weekend before Christmas is called Super Weekend, and it’s all hands on deck.

But the biggest shipping day will be Dec. 23 when  8 million packages will pass through Worldport that day.

Likely, some of my own.

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