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Alexa Allamano paid a woman to work as a part-time salesperson at her jewelry store in Whidbey Island, Washington. But when Foamy Wader reopened from a months-long closure due to the coronavirus crisis in October, the work was done by QR codes.
Allamano has restructured her store so that, as passers-by look out of her window, they can use their smartphones to scan the QR codes next to each item to buy.
“It’s like shopping online, but in real life,” Allamano said.
Now customers only come to the store to pick up orders or for consultations on custom pieces, and Allamano works alone.
U.S. workers in manufacturing plants and distribution centers have long worried that their employers will find ways to replace it with robots and artificial intelligence, but the Covid-19 crisis has also brought the threat to service workers. Businesses are increasingly turning to automated customer service tools that have long been done by low-wage staff.
But rather than robots, it’s the ubiquitous QR matrix stripes that replace humans.
Many restaurants have begun experimenting with QR codes and order management systems, such as Toast, which allow diners to order food at their table instead of using human servers. Grocery stores have increased their investments in self-cash registers that replace human cashiers, and more convenience stores, including Circle K, are experimenting with the computer vision technology that Amazon Go has started to enable customers to make purchases without having to checkout stand.
The shifts mean that some of the 1.7 million jobs for leisure and hospitality and 270,000 retail jobs that the U.S. economy has lost since its peak in February 2020 are unlikely to return.
“With these jobs, there was always a risk of automation, but the pressure was not there,” said Casey Warman, a professor at Dalhousie University who specializes in labor economics. “Covid disrupted the jobs.”
Many business owners, including Allamano, say they are still desperate to hire people, but a shortage of employees they have experienced for months has found them difficult. Economists say that the risk of developing a Delta variant, combined with extensive unemployment benefits and closed schools, has kept some workers at home.
The former Foamy Wader employee has decided to stay home full-time to educate her son, and Allamano’s ad for the open role is just one application. The new technologies are helping to bridge the gap, Allamano said.
Labor economists say workplaces regularly jump into automation during economic downturns because tighter margins force them to be more productive with fewer resources. Repetitive work is the most vulnerable.
According to Warman’s research, women without college degrees are likely to lose their jobs. Thousands of administrative assistants, telemarketers and payroll offices were replaced by computers during the 2007 financial crisis, according to a paper of the Philadelphia Federal Reserve.
“It’s happened before and it’s happening again,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow student studying technology at the Brookings Institution.
In the years after the recession, employers focused on the use of automation to accelerate distribution centers and supply chain operations. But the Covid crisis has caused the adaptation of automated customer service tools, as consumers as well as business owners strive to reduce face-to-face interaction as much as possible, Muro says.
‘This whole thing was a great product placement [advertisement] for technical solutions, ”said Muro.
Alex Shahrestani, a partner at a law firm specializing in technology in Austin, Texas, was looking for an intern or an attorney to help with scheduling and boarding new clients when the pandemic moved their business to another place moved.
“While everyone was trying to figure out calls, I thought people would be much more forgiving if we tried new things,” Shahrestani said. “We have already gone in that direction, but the pandemic has given us the opportunity to try much more.”
The firm uses an in-house program to help clients arrange meetings with attorneys and automatically respond to emails with frequently asked questions, such as pricing.
Now Shahrestani is more interested in hiring a computer programmer to expand and maintain his system.
According to Warman, automations such as the one using Shahrestani’s operations cause very skilled programming systems, but reduce the demand for workers without university degrees in the long run.
Rob Carpenter, founder of the new Valyant AI, which creates a speech recognition system that can take orders at fast food, said many automated tools only have the ability to ease people’s work. He said that most restaurants with fast service do not have a worker who takes orders and that many of the 30 restaurants that use Valyant’s system are trying to hire more people.
“For those who can stay in work, it can improve their work,” Warman said. “But others can be fired. Here will be winners and losers. With automation, there have always been some winners and losers. ”