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Monday, June 1, 2020
Connecting Our Communities

Robots are coming for even those less-than-stellar Walmart jobs

Having done much to support the outsourcing of jobs to China and the resultant problems that followed, Walmart is now of course doing its part to replace workers with robots and other forms of automation. It has the means and the drive – i.e. the profits-above-all mentality – to be an early adopter and advocate for the technology.

Its push is already eliminating jobs, a large irony given that automation has long pushed people out of well-paying jobs and into the retail and hospitality sectors, and created a swath of customers for, you guessed it, Walmart.

Not content with being the world’s largest retailer, gutting many small communities and shuttering competitors, the company now wants to be an even larger disruptor of both the workplace and shopping environment, a piece this week in the Washington Post details.

“The nation’s largest private employer has unleashed an army of robots into more than 1,500 of its jumbo stores, with thousands of automated shelf-scanners, box-unloaders, artificial-intelligence cameras and other machines doing the jobs once left to human employees,” reports Drew Harwell.

“Employees at a half-dozen newly automated Walmarts said the machines at times are helpful, even charming. Some talked about the robots’ personalities and said they had adorned them with employee name tags. But others also felt this new age of robotics had accelerated the pace of work and forced them to constantly respond to the machines’ nagging alerts. Some said it made them doubt the company valued their work.

“This awkward interplay of man vs. machine could become one of the defining tensions of the modern workplace as more stores, hotels, restaurants and other businesses roll in robots that could boost company reliability and trim labour costs.”

Labour costs are at the root of push.

Increasingly, good-paying jobs have disappeared, replaced by crappy service jobs. Well, in part. Fact is, across Canada and the U.S., there are fewer real jobs even as the population increases. Where the labour hasn’t been sent offshore, high immigration levels – legal or otherwise – have been used to drive down wages and to provide fodder for our consumer society. The one financed by debt that reaches new record levels each month, collectively now more than $2 trillion.

Increasingly, those service jobs – crappy and even those that aren’t – that are hyped by those eager to hide the truth from us are at risk through automation. Machines have already displaced many workers, but even jobs in the hospitality industry – waiters, hotel workers, retail clerks – seem destined to be replaced in the shift to automation and robotics. An Oxford University study, for instance, predicted that machines might be able to perform half of all U.S. jobs in the next two decades.

Jobs will be lost, certainly. Some new ones will be created, of course, though likely not enough to offset the losses. And there will be skill set mismatches that will add to the challenge.

None of that matters to those concerned only about profits, a common issue with corporations, especially Walmart.

“The robots also don’t complain, ask for raises, or require vacations and bathroom breaks. During a company earnings call in August, Walmart president and chief executive Doug McMillon said the machines were an important part of how the company, which has annual revenue of $500 billion, could trim waste and ‘operate with discipline,’” the Post story notes.

What Walmart is doing today will push down the costs of technology and help ensure it spreads within the retail industry … and beyond.

Let’s look at the trucking industry, for example, one of the largest employers and a place where there are jobs for those without higher education. According to the American Trucker Association, there are 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the U.S. – it’s the most common job in more than half the states. Add to that another 5.2 million in jobs within the trucking industry. On top of that, there are millions more in related jobs, from logistics right on through to the diners and motels that cater to drivers.

Now, imagine all of the jobs disappearing as a result of a driverless truck.

The technology already exists today, just as it does with driverless cars, another use of technology destined to displace jobs such as cabbies and couriers. Driverless buses and trains will eliminate the need for transit workers, many of them an increasing burden on governments and taxpayers.

Automated transportation, from cars to airplanes, is safer, more efficient and much less costly to operate – computers don’t fall asleep, take bathroom breaks, drink on the job or a host of other human foibles. For all those reasons, driverless is the future of transportation.

This isn’t science fiction anymore. It’s here, and the technology’s spread is inevitable. The same transformation will migrate to many fields. Not just McJobs, but into accounting, medicine, teaching and host of other jobs that now pay well, and are typically considered safe.

Once upon a time, automation was a panacea that was to lead to a mythical leisure society – the machines would do the work, while we reaped the benefit of reclaimed time to do what we wanted rather than the drudgery of work. As we’ve seen so far, technology has extended workweeks and displaced people from high-paying to lesser jobs. Walmart’s actions will exacerbate that trend.

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