Marge worked as a telephone switchboard operator but knew her days were numbered as more and more phone companies implemented technology that would make her job obsolete. It is an inevitable occurrence in our world and one that seems to be accelerating in the 21st century as artificial intelligence and automation gain capabilities.
It won’t be the first time a job has disappeared because of technology and it won’t be the last. Have you noticed the increase in self-checkout lines? How much of your shopping has shifted online? Department of Labor data as of June 2017 shows that 3.5 million people work as cashiers in retail and about 1 million of those work in grocery stores. Are the days of the retail cashier numbered?
In his book, Rise of the Robots (2015), Martin Ford states that we are entering a new era “that will be defined by a fundamental shift in the relationship between workers and machines. That shift will ultimately challenge one of our most basic assumptions about technology: that machines are tools that increase the productivity of workers. Instead, machines themselves are turning into workers, and the line between the capability of labor and capital is blurring as never before.”
Amazon recently opened a store with no employees on the floor. Shoppers scan in with their phone when entering and overhead cameras and sensors track what is purchased and bills you accordingly. The shopper picks up their merchandise and just walks out.
Self-checkout stations seem to be everywhere – airports, libraries, photo processing, grocery stores, gas pumps, and more. Certainly, this technology reduces labor costs and increase profits. What do stores do with the increased profits? Hire fewer workers at higher wages? Maintain or reduce staff size and keep wages the same? Train former cashiers for different jobs within the company? Use the savings to add benefits?
In this climate of profit before people, we can be fairly certain that the increased profits are not being used to improve the wages or benefits of existing workers. I wonder what if any plans are being made by corporations to help workers transition to new positions.
Data in a Mckinsey Global Institute Report (January 2017) on automation in the workplace estimates “that about half of all the activities people are paid to do in the world’s workforce could potentially be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technologies. That amounts to almost $15 trillion in wages.”
One cannot deny that technology has improved our lives and has made many jobs easier. The robotic welder has improved the accuracy and speed of building a car. Robotic arms that lift heavy pieces of equipment have reduced injuries and made the workplace safer.
As Sarah Kessler points out in her insightful article posted on Quartz, many questions remain: “Will new jobs be as good, worse, or better, as the cashier jobs that came before them? Will there be as many of those jobs as there were cashier jobs? And will the people who work retail today have the skill sets to do these new jobs?”
Marge the switchboard operator is now Marge the grocery store cashier. What does the corporation owe its employees? Should Walmart be required to give 6 months’ notice to workers whose positions will be eliminated by automation? Should Target have to offer retraining and a new position in the store? How many cashiers have been told that their full-time work-week of 40 hours and benefits was being reduced to 20 hours and no benefits or eliminated entirely? It is time for corporations to put people before profit.
Self-Checkout Photo Credit – Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_Vac’>Vac / 123RF Stock Photo</a>