Technology is eating our jobs. But is that a bad thing?
It’s like something out of a dream. Right in front of your eyes, a corner of Sydney’s Town Hall train station has been transformed into a giant supermarket catalogue.
It’s a marketing campaign for Woolworths’ mobile app. Smartphones in hand, commuters are “scanning” 2D groceries displayed on the wall in front of them. Bread, milk, a pack of half a dozen sausages. It’s just like a supermarket. Just without the checkout chicks.
Around a decade ago, self-service machines were deployed throughout supermarkets and discount variety stores across the country, competing to scan your groceries with a band of pimply teenagers slaving for a minimum wage after school. But now with this latest innovation, even those have been cut out of the equation. The consumer can do it all themselves with the phone in their hand. It’s yet another sign that, thanks to technology, “checkout chick” has become an obsolete occupation. It’s not the only one that has.
In the red dirt of the Pilbara on the other side of Australia, one of Rio Tinto’s forty-one 2.1km-long iron ore trains is lumbering through the desert. A driver is at the controls. He won’t be for long.
It was reported yesterday that the mining giant will cut most of its 500 train driver jobs over the next three years as it converts its railway network into a driverless system. Instead, the trains’ 450km journey to port will be operated remotely from Perth. On top of that, Rio plans to deploy 150 driverless dump trucks at the mines in coming years.
Woollies and Rio Tinto, two of Australia’s most profitable companies in completely different industries, are embracing new technologies that will help them either expand into new markets or increase efficiencies - and make old jobs obsolete. And why wouldn’t they?
Like all businesses in retail, Woolworths needs to expand into the online shopping market that’s becoming more competitive by the second. Rio says that it needs a robot workforce to insure it against a tightening skills shortage in the region - the resources sector alone will need a whopping additional 260,000 workers(!) over the next five years, according to government estimates. And it will help them keep costs low by reducing the number of workers they have to fly-in and fly-out of WA, all while allowing them to keep up with the demand of resource-hungry China.
But workers with less skills can say goodbye to their jobs. Like train drivers, and surely, eventually checkout chicks.
Of course, it’s nothing new that machinery is taking the jobs of humans. It’s been happening at least since the first Ford assembly line. And we’re familiar with the schtick with these companies always put out: while they’re killing lesser-skilled jobs, they’re creating better, higher paying jobs. It’s creative destruction.
Rio says they’re still going to employ a high number of people in the years to come and have offered to retrain existing workers who wish to stay. And retailers have said that their self-service machines won’t replace checkout chicks anytime soon - something you couldn’t believe if you take a look what’s happening in supermarkets in the UK.
Regardless, that doesn’t mean the casual checkout worker can easily get a job again. That doesn’t mean the train driver wants to go through the training to spend his life as a train information technology specialist. Technology has a human cost.
On the flipside, though, technology can lead to human gain. New technologies often make our economies better for all of us. For instance, you don’t hear consumers crying out for banks to shut down their ATMs and bring back bank tellers and their extraordinary queues. And the more efficient service a company provides, the more likely they are to get the consumer dollar and spread their wealth around.
One economist writes that technology “always throws people out of work…but in the long run, employment keeps growing, and wages keep rising.”
The key word there is “in the long run”. It doesn’t mean people don’t get left behind. Another economist writes: “Technology grows the overall economic pie, but that’s different than saying it will leave everyone unambiguously better off.”
Last year FoxConn, a Taiwanese company that manufactures Apple products like iPads in factories in China, said that it would sharply boost the number of robots it had working for it from 10,000 to 300,000 by this year.
Why? An analyst explained: “It’s no longer easy to double production by doubling your work force, it might be now cheaper to buy a new machine in the long run,” he added.
Once upon a time we were worried about our jobs being outsourced to people in China. Now we’re worried about them being outsourced to machines in China. And what about the Chinese workers? FoxConn too claimed at the time they were going to move the manufacturing workers into better, higher-paying jobs, but do you really think there’ was space for many of them amongst those hundreds of thousands of robots?
The world is getting more hi-tech. But while our trains might be driving themselves, some - the checkout chicks and the Chinese - are inevitably going to be left at the station, wondering what they’re going to do next.
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