Pandemic Wave of Automation May Be Bad News for Workers

“You can bring in a less skilled worker and make them a lot easier to adapt to our system,” said Ryan Hillis, a vice president for Meltwich. “It certainly extends the scope of who can stand behind this grill.”

With more advanced kitchen equipment, software that allows online orders to be sent straight to the restaurant, and other technological advances, Meltwich only needs two to three workers per shift instead of three or four, Hillis said.

Such changes, carried over to thousands of companies in dozens of industries, could dramatically change the outlook for workers. Professor Warman, the Canadian economist, said that technologies designed for a specific purpose tend to expand to similar tasks, which could make it difficult for workers harmed by automation to move to another profession or industry .

“If an entire sector of work is involved, where are these workers going?” Said Professor Warman. Women and, to a lesser extent, colored people are likely to be disproportionately affected, he added.

The grocery store has long been a source of permanent, often unionized, jobs for people without a college degree. But technology is changing the industry. Self-checkout registers have reduced the number of cashiers; many stores have simple robots to check aisles for spills and check inventory; and warehouses are becoming increasingly automated. Kroger opened a 375,000 square meter warehouse in April with more than 1,000 robots that pack groceries for delivery customers. The company is even experimenting with drone delivery of food.

Other companies in the industry do the same. Jennifer Brogan, a spokeswoman for Stop & Shop, a New England-based grocery chain, said the technology allowed the company to better serve customers – and that it was a competitive necessity.

“Competitors and other players in the retail space are developing technologies and partnerships to reduce their costs and provide customers with improved service and value,” she said. “Stop & Shop has to do the same.”

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