This Was the Year the Robot Takeover of Service Jobs Began

Photo: Mike Stewart (AP)
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Out of the three major sectors of the economy—agriculture, manufacturing, and service—two are already largely automated. Farm labor, which about half the American workforce used to do, now comprises around 2 percent of American jobs. And we all know the rust belt song and dance, beat out to outsourcing and mechanization. Which is largely why some 80 percent of all American jobs are service jobs. And this year, quietly but in the open, the robots and their investors came for them, too.

There’s a case to be made that 2018 is the year automation took its biggest lunge forward toward our largest pool of human labor: Amazon opened five cashier-less stores; three in Seattle, one in Chicago, and one in San Francisco. Self-ordering kiosks invaded fast food and franchise restaurants in a big way. Smaller robot-centric outfits like the long-awaited auto-burger joint Creator opened, too, and so did a number of others.

In Las Vegas, our service job mecca, hotels’ and casinos’ widespread plans for automation in everything from bartending to waitstaff to hotel work led one of the city’s most powerful hospitality unions to the brink of a 50,000-person strike last summer before a successful negotiation was reached.

“Almost everywhere, you already have tablets, where you can pay with your credit cards right at the table,” Geoconda Arguello Kline, a longtime hotel guest attendant and now the secretary-treasurer of Culinary Workers Union Local 226. “You can have salad maker machines, ice cream machines, delivery machines—machines that deliver water, or whatever you order to the room, this machine can go to the rooms and deliver it—bartender machines, and so on.”

None of the events described above put any serious dent into the national job numbers—in fact, statistically, employment figures mostly only rose—but combined, they act as a set of markers on a trendline we can no longer ignore. We face the prospect of major upheaval in the last dependable pool of jobs we’ve got. For proof, look no further than the transcript from the Restaurant Finance and Development Conference, where some of the industry’s most influential actors gather in Las Vegas each year.

“We are at the place where the most repetitive tasks can be performed by a robot,” said Fred LeFranc, the founder and CEO of Results Thru Strategy, which advises hospitality firms. “And they don’t call in sick, they don’t talk back.”

This year, the mounting victories in the nationwide $15-an-hour wage campaign provided an oft-referenced talking point for industry executives and analysts. They pointed to the incoming cost of paying employees a living wage as a motivation to automate everything from salad-dressing to dishwashing.

“For a long time we didn’t have automatic dishwashers,” Wendy’s CFO Gunther Plosch said. “Why not? At $7 an hour it wasn’t a big deal, but now at $15 it makes more sense.”

Most parts of the service economy are susceptible to automation. But it’s fast food, where the bulk of the jobs are low-skilled and highly repetitious, that may be most vulnerable. “Fast food will be really susceptible,” Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots and Architects of Intelligence, told me in an interview. “There’s going to be a competitive dynamic—once one company does it, they’ll all do it.”

“And within five years, they’ll be able to do it pretty dramatically.”

To wit: Self-ordering kiosks in restaurants have been popping up in restaurants in Europe and Asia, but 2018 is probably the year they truly started proliferating stateside. McDonald’s has been putting a thousand self-ordering kiosks per quarter in its stores since the summer, and plans on doing so until at least 2020. Fast food employs around 3.7 million people, and 89 percent are “front-line” workers like cashiers and cooks—the jobs that have already started to be replaced.

“In this market, employees will leave if they have one bad day,” Patrick Sugrue, the CEO of Saladworks, a 95-store chain, told the Wall Street Journal. “If that happens, having this technology in place makes it easier to deal with.”

While we’re talking cashiers, it’s worth noting that Amazon plans to open 3,000 more cashier-less grocery stores. It’s not just in fast food where we can expect that job to disappear.

If cashiers stand to be automated away in coming years, so do cooks. Franchise Times reports, for instance, that Chick-fil-A’s CFO Brent Ragsdale is “looking at a little more automation on top of the company’s semi-automated grills.”

“We’re looking at some robotics in the back of the restaurant and take out some of the jobs that aren’t as preferable,” Ragsdale said at RFDC. “We always squeezed lemons in the back of house, but I’m not sure if we get credit for that, so we’re talking about going to a juicing facility—that would save one million man hours in the back of house.”

Elsewhere this year, Flippy, an automated hamburger-cooking robot, was introduced in the Caliburger chain (which also, it bears noting, uses facial recognition to scan users faces—Pay With Your Face—if they want) and soon expanded to Dodger Stadium. “I think that in the next six months, we will deploy robots to customers in ways that will shock people,” John Miller, the CEO of Cali Group, which owns Caliburger, said at the recent Restaurant Innovation Summit. Spyce, a restaurant with a kitchen (and ordering system) manned by robotic cooks, opened in Boston last Spring. Pazzi, a pizza-flipping robot, won millions in funding. Other, smaller improvements to the kitchen could, feasibly, reduce the human workforce dramatically.

Andy Puzder, the former CEO of Carl’s Jr and President Donald Trump’s first pick for Labor secretary—he withdrew his candidacy amidst domestic abuse allegations—told the WSJ that, “A self-cleaning oven isn’t going to replace people, but if you have several of those labor-saving tools, eventually you won’t need all those workers.” He too added that the tight labor market will spur more automation across the industry.

Automation like the fleet of robots that took over luggage-moving duties at a Los Angeles Sheraton. Or the wine-serving robot bartender that was unveiled in a Prague restaurant. The list goes on—no wonder that the coming wave was felt first in Las Vegas. That, after all, is where hospitality companies undertook plans to automate all of the above, where restaurant executives gathered to detail their intentions to accelerate that automation—and where hospitality workers pushed back with an organized effort to win some protections against automation.

They won, for now. The Culinary Workers Union won a pathbreaking deal for service workers—one that includes language that specifically insulates them from the impacts of automation.

“We were researching a lot about how technology comes in other countries,” Kline told me. “We look at countries that are very advanced, with technologies like Japan, where you have robotic servers bringing food to the table that cost $900—and we see how it’s going to be implemented. So many restaurants will have that technology—so if you’re implementing the bartender machine, how will the workers get affected? This is going to happen here. It may be faster than we think. We see it moving little by little now, but... what we want is to protect the jobs.”

Just last month, in November of 2018, the union finally ratified the new 5-year contract for its 25,000 workers. It stipulates, among other things, that the union must be notified 180 days before a new technology will be adopted (“And who’s going to be affected by the technology,” Kline says), that companies must provide a retraining option for employees who risk redundancy from those technologies, as well as better severance, 6 months pay, if they choose to let the robot take their job. And those automated out of work get priority in rehiring.

All told, it’s a sensible step towards engaging the automation problem at large—it offers time to assess impacts, retrain workers, or cushion the blow if mechanization is imminent. One automation researcher I spoke with this year, Carnegie Mellon’s Tom Mitchell, the E. Fredkin University Professor in the School of Computer Science, says his most recent research shows automation is less likely to wipe away jobs outright than to rearrange the “bundles of work” they entail; the different tasks we currently associate with a particular job. 180 days, or 6 months, in other words, might help workers and employers work together to better rebundle those service jobs.

“We know nobody’s going to stop automation,” Kline says, “but how can this be an opportunity for the members, so they can make choices too—maybe I’m close to retiring, and I want severance and healthcare. And retraining part is so important—if you having a salad-making robot, someone has to prepare the salad, maintain the machine.” That’s a job, or part of one.

It’s sensible policy, and they’re decent protections. And they’re absolutely necessary. Corporate employers will of course use “tight labor markets” as an opportunity to find more ways to automate work, to install those machines that don’t talk back that will continue to run when the markets untighten. If history is any guide, they’ll use the threat of automation to try to keep wages lower and to keep workers in a precarious state. The service robot job apocalypse may be coming, in other words—when and if the kiosks and face-scanners and robot bartenders and busboys are ready en masse, there’s little doubt they’ll be deployed to replace their fleshy forebears.

“We are not opposed to technology,” Kline says. “The members are looking at it like, this is going to happen, and the machines can replace our jobs if we don’t work to protect them.”