Pandemic wave of automation may be bad news for workers

“You can attract a less skilled worker and make them fit into our system much more easily,” said Ryan Hillis, vice president of Meltwich. “It certainly widens the reach of who you can get behind this grill.”

With more advanced kitchen equipment, software that allows online orders to go straight to restaurants, and other technological advancements, Meltwich only needs two to three workers per shift, instead of three or four. Mr. Hillis said.

Such changes, multiplied by thousands of companies in dozens of industries, could dramatically alter the outlook for workers. Professor Warman, the Canadian economist, said technologies developed for a single purpose tend to spread to similar tasks, which could make it difficult for workers affected by automation to move to another profession or industry. .

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

The grocery store has long been a source of stable and often unionized jobs for people without a university degree. But technology is changing the industry. Self-service checkouts have reduced the number of cashiers; many stores have simple robots to monitor aisles for spills and check inventory; and warehouses have become increasingly automated. Kroger opened in April a 375,000 square foot warehouse with over 1,000 robots wrapping groceries for delivery customers. The company is even experimenting with grocery delivery by drone.

Other companies in the sector are doing the same. Jennifer Brogan, spokesperson for Stop & Shop, a New England-based grocery chain, said technology is enabling the company to serve customers better – and it’s a competitive necessity.

“Competitors and other retail players are developing technologies and partnerships to reduce costs and deliver improved service and value to customers,” she said. “Stop & Shop must do the same. “

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