QR codes replace service personnel as pandemic spurs automation in US

Updates on employment in the United States

Alexa Allamano used to pay a woman to work as a part-time salesperson at her jewelry store in Whidbey Island, WA. But when Foamy Wader reopened after a months-long shutdown due to the coronavirus crisis in October, that work was done through QR codes.

Allamano has restructured its store so that, when passers-by peruse its windows, they can use their smartphones to scan the QR codes next to each item to be purchased.

“It’s like shopping online, but in real life,” Allamano said.

From now on, customers only come inside the store to collect orders or to consult on personalized pieces, and Allamano works alone.

U.S. workers in manufacturing plants and distribution centers have long feared their employers will find ways to replace them with robots and artificial intelligence, but the Covid-19 crisis has also posed this threat to workers. services. Companies are increasingly turning to automated tools for customer service tasks long performed by low-paid staff.

But rather than robots, it’s the ubiquitous QR matrix barcodes that are replacing humans.

Many restaurants have started experimenting with QR codes and order management systems like Toast that allow diners to order food to their table from their phones rather than human waiters. Grocery stores have increased their investments in self-checkout kiosks that are replacing human cashiers, and more convenience stores, including Circle K, are experimenting with computer vision technology pioneered by Amazon Go to enable customers to make purchases without having to stand in line.

The changes mean that some of the 1.7 million leisure and hospitality jobs and 270,000 retail jobs that the U.S. economy has lost since its February 2020 peak are unlikely to return.

“With these jobs, there was always some risk of automation, but the push wasn’t there,” said Casey Warman, a professor at Dalhousie University specializing in labor economics. “Covid has pushed these jobs. “

Many business owners, including Allamano, say they’re still desperate to hire human workers, but a months-long labor shortage has made them hard to find. Economists say the risk of contracting the Delta coronavirus variant combined with expanded unemployment benefits and closed schools has kept some workers at home.

The former Foamy Wader employee decided to stay home full time to educate her son, and Allamano’s publicity for the open role attracted only one application. New technologies are helping to bridge the gap, Allamano said.

Alexa Allamano showcase showing QR codes through which customers can purchase her products © Alexa Allamano

Labor economists say workplaces steadily make advances in automation during economic downturns, as tighter margins force them to be more productive with fewer resources. Repetitive jobs are the most vulnerable.

Women without a college degree are the most likely to lose their jobs, according to Warman’s research. Thousands of administrative assistants, telemarketers and payroll clerks were replaced with computers during the 2007 financial crisis, according to a Philadelphia Federal Reserve document.

“It’s happened before and it’s happening again,” said Mark Muro, a senior researcher who studies the technology at the Brookings Institution.

Employers focused on using automation to speed up distribution centers and supply chain operations in the years following the recession. But the Covid crisis led to the adaptation of automated customer service tools, as consumers and business owners sought to reduce face-to-face interactions as much as possible, Muro said.

“It’s all been a big product placement [advertisement] for technological solutions, ”said Muro.

Alex Shahrestani, a partner at a tech law firm in Austin, TX, was looking to hire an intern or paralegal to help him plan and onboard new clients when the pandemic moved their business remotely .

“While everyone was trying to figure out the zoom calls, I thought people would be a lot more forgiving if we tried new things,” Shahrestani said. “We were already moving in this direction, but the pandemic gave us the opportunity to try a lot more. “

The firm uses a program it built in-house to help clients schedule meetings with lawyers and automatically respond to emails with frequently asked questions such as pricing.

Now, Shahrestani is more interested in hiring a computer programmer to develop and maintain his system.

Automations such as the one used by Shahrestani’s firm often create highly skilled programming jobs, but reduce the demand for workers without a college degree in the long run, according to Warman.

Rob Carpenter, founder of start-up Valyant AI, which makes a voice recognition system capable of taking commands at fast food restaurants while driving, said many automated tools only have the ability to lighten the load. human workers. He said most quick-service restaurants did not have a dedicated worker to take orders behind the wheel, and many of the 30 restaurants using Valyant’s system were trying to hire more human workers.

“For those who are able to stay on, it could improve their job,” Warman said. “But others could be made redundant. There will be winners and losers here. With automation, there have always been winners and losers.

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