Robots first replaced humans in doing high-volume, repetitive, and dangerous tasks; now they're everywhere.
From ordering kiosks to robotic peach pickers, automation has been supplanting human workers for years. However, adoption is starting to speed up, as companies find ways to cope with a labor shortages, according to Andy Challenger, senior vice president at employment agency Challenger, Gray & Christmas. It's not that businesses are necessarily trying to replace humans, but some organizations say they have exhausted all efforts to attract workers over recent months.
The ongoing labor shortage has been especially hard on small-business owners who are struggling to attract workers in an environment of higher wages, remote work opportunities, and enhanced federal unemployment benefits--all of which employers say discourage job applicants. As of August 6, there were 10 million job openings in the country; 31 percent of small-business owners say they have open roles they have been unable to fill for at least three months, according to CNBC's third quarter Momentive Small Business Survey.
There are workers available. In fact, there are nine million free to join in. But the reopening period of the pandemic has cast a bright light on the fact that the country isn't ready to go back to business as usual. Indeed, "Americans don't seem to want to go back to work," says Andy Challenger, "And there is a real question about whether that's a permanent change."
So as they have done in the past when labor becomes scarce or expensive, businesses replace it with capital: in this case, adding robotic functions to their workforce. That includes fast food giant White Castle, which in July 2020 welcomed Flippy, a robotic arm that works the fry station 23 hours a day, to its Chicago team. Automation tools have streamlined customer-facing services in the fast food world for the past few years, covering everything from the ordering at self-service kiosks to food preparation.
Rising wages and unwilling workers are tilting investment toward automation in more skilled jobs, too. Beastro, a robot chef whose resume reads: "Cuisine type: Italian, Asian, Salad, Soups and more," and is skilled in dishing out 45 meals per hour, can be rented for $7,500 a month, and can replace two to three employees, Beastro's co-founder Ofer Zinger told The Wall Street Journal in August. And robots can't catch Covid, says Challenger, noting a major concern among frontline workers and employers for the past year and a half. "It is less about the wages in some ways than just the availability of workers at all," says Challenger.
There's a belief among business owners that when supplemental federal unemployment benefits run out, the supply of labor will rise in response. But some economists dispute that idea, pointing out that the actual data doesn't necessarily to support it. We are going to find out in a month or so who's right. "It is very possible in this moment we have just seen a major psychological shift," says Challenger.