Is Flippy the burger chef coming for your job?

Is Flippy the robot coming for your job? Flippy flips burgers in fast-food restaurants, so if you’re an electrical engineer, probably not. But even for those who work in the fast-food industry, Flippy may be creating more jobs than it’s destroying.

“Experts have warned for years that robots will replace humans in restaurants,” write Julie Jargon and Eric Morath in The Wall Street Journal. “Instead, a twist on that prediction is unfolding. Amid the lowest unemployment in years, fast-food restaurants are turning to machines—not to get rid of workers, but because they can’t find enough.”

They quote John Miller, chief executive and founder of CaliBurger LLC, as saying his company plans to install Flippy in up to ten of its 50 restaurants by year end—not to kick humans to the curb. “Flippy will handle the gruntwork,” Jargon and Morath write, “freeing employees to tidy the dining rooms and refill drinks, less arduous work that might make it easier to recruit and retain workers.”

They note that the hospitality industry had a record number of unfilled positions as of April, and the 6% unemployment rate for restaurant workers is the lowest on record, according to the Labor Department. Automation, they suggest, can help restaurants do more by staying open longer or delivering food. “Some chains also need more employees to handle the increased demand that comes from automating tasks such as ordering,” they write.

Gruntwork can be a problem in a high-turnover industry. They quote Patrick Sugrue, the chief executive of Saladworks, as saying, “In this market, employees will leave if they have one bad day.”

Jeff Spross at The Week elaborates on this point. “It turns out restaurants are using automation to make employment more attractive—to cut out the drudgery and repetitive tasks. Wendy’s, for instance, is using automation to wash bowls, spatulas, and utensils, and to clean bacon grease off ovens. Panera has turned to in-store kiosks to handle orders, allowing workers to focus on crafting better food. Arby’s is automating its ovens to handle prep-cooking, so employees don’t have to start so early. Dunkin’ Donuts is using machines to print previously hand-written labels and to brew coffee.”

In a weak economy, Spross notes, an unpleasant work environment is not a problem for employers. A disgruntled employee who quits can be replaced by plenty of other people desperate for work.

But with today’s low unemployment rate, Spross writes, “…the whole script flips: Suddenly employers have to improve pay and work conditions to hold onto their workers.” One approach is automating unappealing tasks.

Spross in his article in The Week also addresses the separate problem of worker training. “One question you almost never hear asked is, if businesses can’t find workers with the right skills, why don’t they just hire unskilled people and train them?” he asks. “Well, first off, because they don’t like to: Training workers takes time and money. And second, because they don’t have to: When unemployment is high, enough people are desperate for work that they’ll pour their own time and money into extra education and training if they can afford it.”

He continues, “But again, when unemployment drops, everything changes.” He cites a New York Times article describing APT Manufacturing Solutions, an Ohio-based manufacturer of robotic equipment, whose robots apparently aren’t yet up to manufacturing themselves. Consequently, the company has begun offering apprenticeships and covering college costs and has started teaching manufacturing skills to high-school students.

In the Times article, Ben Casselman quotes Anthony Nighswander, president of APT Manufacturing Solutions, as saying, “I never thought that I would be training high-school students in our facilities. What I knew was that I was in survival mode. I knew the orders for robots and for automation were coming in faster than I could get the jobs out.”

“Back during the recession, anyone without ‘skills’ had a hard time getting a job,” adds Spross at The Week.” “But now that there’s a lot of competition for workers, suddenly ‘skills’ aren’t such a barrier anymore.”

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