October 28, 2019
This past weekend I had the unfortunate task of calling my cable provider to see if they could help restore my spotty television service. Not so long ago my call would have been answered by someone in a call center. Today I am greeted by an automated “robo” call center with computer generated dialogue. These calls typically entail a list of options which for some reason never quite seem to fit the issue at hand, and send you on an eternal loop with no solution in sight. Headlines have been full of “experts” sounding the alarms on the wave of job loss that will come crashing upon us due to artificial intelligence, but is automation really at a point where complex problems can be addressed effectively?
Given the dissatisfaction caused by the “robo” customer service of my cable provider, I can only imagine the frustration that will ensue if automation of something like automobiles is implemented. The current strides being made with machine learning technology and analysis of big data must present a threat for certain jobs, however the jobs that are at more immediate risk are at the less complicated end of the customer service spectrum.
An example of this can be found at McDonalds, where kiosks are being added which enable customers to enter their own orders on a screen. In this way McDonalds is automating a low skill, repetitive activity, with the result that more orders can be taken faster without having to hire any additional workers. With these savings in labor costs there is more scope to pay higher skill positions a more competitive wage, or open additional locations. While some jobs are lost, the low hanging fruit for positions that will be automated are those that are currently low pay and less engaging.
Amazon is another company striving to further automate. The reasons are, however, different to McDonalds. Amazon has a major problem with employee dissatisfaction. Last year their median employee tenure was 1 year, the 3rd lowest of Fortune 500 companies according to data from Payscale. Amazon has had to “gamify” its warehouse positions to keep employees motivated. With the rollout of free same day delivery with Amazon Prime, perhaps the only way to support the high volume of low cost deliveries will be through further automation.
Companies have striven for, and implemented, more and more automation since the industrial revolution. While new technology presents risks to certain lines of work, new opportunities will arise which are more challenging and pay a higher wage. As for driverless vehicles and drone delivery, the technology will come one day, and when it does there will be fields that see jobs disappear, however the path to that point will be incremental. What will not change is that the best way employees can protect their jobs is to invest in themselves and develop a high level of skill.