Will an Automated Food Industry Result in Fewer Jobs in the Future?

When fast food workers planned a strike in 2013 for higher pay, the question that jumped to many minds wasn't whether the employees would get their $15 an hour but whether their jobs were really necessary. Restaurants are increasingly turning to automated systems to do the jobs that were once held by people. These technological advancements have the potential to eliminate many hospitality jobs. 

The Rise of the Automat

Image via Flickr by Lars Ploughmann

An automat is a fast food establishment that's almost entirely automated. The best example of this is the FEBO Automat in Amsterdam. Walk into a FEBO and you'll see a shiny wall of premade hot food choices waiting for your selection. Customers drop in their coins and receive a ready-to-eat snack or meal. The food is prepared fresh daily and shipped to FEBO locations, so the system still requires a cook. However, this automat system eliminates other on-site jobs, such as the cashier.

Tablets to Replace the Waiter

Chili's Grill & Bar, Applebee's, and Uno Chicago Grills have all started adopting tablet computers in place of the traditional waiter or waitress. With these tablets, customers can place their order and pay the check with the tabletop device, eliminating both jobs from the worker's list of responsibilities. There's no automated delivery system in these restaurants as of yet, so they haven't been eliminated completely. In fact, restaurants like Applebee's and Chili's claim that they won't change their staffing levels.

However, it's difficult to believe that automating so much of the worker's job won't free him or her up to take more tables, thereby reducing the number of employees needed for the restaurant to run smoothly. Not only are the tablets cheaper than any employee -- they cost 42 cents per hour per table -- they're also increasing sales. Ziosk data indicates that restaurants with tablets at the table are seeing a 15 percent increase in tips and a 20 percent increase in the sale of both starters and desserts.  

Kiosks to Replace Counter Staff

Table service restaurants aren't the only ones turning to technology to revolutionize the ordering process. A Hardee's franchisee introduced order kiosks in its restaurants and found the same trend that occurs with tablets at the table. People tend to order more when they're using technology. Other chains are following suit. A White Castle in Columbus, Ohio, added two touch-screen kiosks in December 2013. A McDonald's in Laguna Nigel, Calif., is doing the same.

These kiosks make it easy for diners to customize their burgers with everything from perfectly grilled patties to extra sauce or toppings. Kiosks also simplify the process for customers who don't speak English. Since the kiosks manage both ordering and paying, they can effectively take the place of many counter service employees.

Burger Assembly Robots

Image via Flickr by Steve Jurvetson

If you think the kitchen staff in a restaurant is safe from technology's reach, you're wrong. Momentum Machines has developed a burger assembly robot that shapes and cooks patties, slices toppings, assembles sandwiches, and bags orders. The next revision of the machine will even offer custom meat grinds, so customers could potentially order a burger with two-thirds beef and one-third pork -- or other individualized creations.

The machine churns out 360 hamburgers an hour. The manufacturers claim the labor savings will allow the machine to pay for itself in one year, after which the extra income will allow restaurants to spend twice as much on higher quality ingredients.

Automated Bartenders

The Makr Shakr is a robotic bartending system unveiled at the Google I/O 2013. The machine features three robotic arms that can do everything from slice garnishes to shake cocktails. This particular machine was created not as a replacement for bartenders but as an innovative way for customers to create their own cocktails through a social sharing app that communicated with the robot.

Despite its intention, this invention demonstrates that the technology clearly exists for a machine to do exactly what a bartender can. The Makr Shakr even goes above and beyond by monitoring consumption and blood alcohol levels so it can cut customers off before they overindulge.

The Future of Automated Jobs

Experts believe that the prevailing trend of automation will encroach on many industries in the coming years. It's predicted that 47 percent of all job categories will be open to automation in the next 20 years. Bill Gates believes that jobs at the low-end of the skill set are at the highest risk, predicting a substantially lower demand for these jobs in the same time frame.

What it Means for the Food Industry

Image via Flickr by Robert S. Donovan

A University of Oxford study published in 2013 predicted that there's a 92 percent chance of fast food jobs becoming automated in the coming decades. However, other experts don't see the immediate future as being quite so grim. Food industry expert Darren Tristano estimates that work forces will drop just 5 to 10 percent in the coming decades because customers still expect food service to come at the hands of live servers.

Prospective Employment in the Food Industry

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts continuing growth in food and beverage service. The job outlook between 2012 and 2022 is projected at 12 percent, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations. The expected employment change within this industry is greatest for food preparation and serving workers, with an estimated growth of 14 percent. Hosts and hostesses will see only moderate growth at 5 percent. Employment for counter attendants, cafeteria, food concession, and coffee shop workers doesn't look as sunny, expecting to decline by 1 percent.

Prospective workers in the food industry should keep these trends in mind as they plan for their future careers. The jobs that require the least amount of skill are often the easiest to replace. Highly skilled careers won't be replaced with automation as quickly. A machine may be able to press and grill a patty, but it can't yet prepare an innovative gourmet feast.

Focusing on jobs that are more skilled and require a higher degree of education is the best way to protect yourself from automated replacement.

Contributed to jobs.net by Kim Evans

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