Are no jobs safe? Outsourcing sign-spinner jobs ... to robots

It's hard to think of a job that is more unlikely to be outsourced than a sign-spinner outside a store or restaurant. They're low-wage retail jobs that have to be done at the location.

But retailers in cities across the country are experimenting with robotic road-side retail promotion.

Tyson Miltenberger of Bakehouse Water Bagels in Portland, Ore., employed a motorized female mannequin to advertise his adjacent bagel and taco shops along a busy commercial strip.

The robot business is growing fast. By the end of 2013, author Marshall Brain (Robotic Nation) predicted there would be more than one million industrial robots worldwide, or about one for every 6,000 humans.

And the robot industry is booming. Including the robots themselves, plus software and engineering to make them tick, the industry is generating $26 billion in sales, according to the Frankfurt-based International Federation of Robotics, a trade group.

Some of the smartest tech guys in the room have caught the bug, too: Google has made eight acquisitions in the robotics field just this year.

Of course, there are downsides — for the humans who interact with robots, or are replaced by them in the workplace. Twenty deaths have been linked to robots and other automation in factories, according to the U.S. Occupational and Health Administration (OSHA).

U.S. factory output is up more than 50 percent in the past two decades, while manufacturing employment is down by nearly 30 percent, according to Bloomberg News. Some of that is the result of people being displaced by ever-smarter and more capable machines.

Experts predict service industries will be the next to see serious inroads made by robots. According to an article in Business Insider, the most vulnerable service jobs include pharmacists, paralegals, retail cashiers, library clerks, babysitters, reporters ... and perhaps we should add retail sign-spinner.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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