Robots and the hourglass economy

A Robot-Human Alliance: Technology is, by some economists' accounts, causing a hollowing out of middle-income jobs.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story incompletely described a demonstration of a pharmacy robot. The demonstration took place at Roboworld at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and involved a robot that sorts and delivers pills for fictitious patients. The text has been corrected.

Kai Ryssdal: Time now to rejoin our traveling correspondent David Brancaccio, somewhere in the greater American Southwest, as he continues his long lonely coast-to-coast drive in the complete absence of human interaction. Our series is called Robots Ate My Job: What technology's doing to the future of jobs in this country. Today, what happens when the robots do take over. Here's David.


David Brancaccio: Mile 2,100 now, trying for Las Vegas, day five. Two pieces of technology have made possible this attempt to drive across the country with only machines and no humans. Man's gotta eat, so there's the self-checkout robots at supermarkets along the way. And machine number two, recognize it?

 

Microwave

I've been sneaking a $49 microwave oven into my hotel rooms, like this one in Albuquerque last night. Dorky, clumsy, effective. And for amusement, I downloaded an episode of "30 Rock." In it, Jack Donagy, Alec Baldwin's character, tells Kenneth the NBC page, that he's being replaced by a machine.

Jack Donagy from "30 Rock" clip: We're calling it Not Kenneth. We've inputted the entire page handbook into Not-Kenneth's database. It knows everything you know and more.


Kenneth from "30 Rock" clip: Why Jack? Why?

Because it's cheaper. And the argument goes, the jobs robots replace, are not the jobs that people really want -- like retail cashier.

Scanner: If you are finished scanning, please touch finish and pay.

Here's what I found out before I set out on my trip. A CVS pharmacy near Grand Central in New York has machines so you can check out all by your lonesome.

Scanner: Please wait...

The store also has humans on the payroll, like Lily. She says the drone checkouts have been great for the store and customers above all, dig shorter lines. But some do complain about the machine's attitude.

Lily: They call her the "crazy lady" sometimes. They say that she's very annoying.


Scanner: Your total is.... Please wait. System processing.

Maybe this model needs a little warmth dialed into its algorithm? While some grocery chains, including Kroger, have pulled out some self-checkout lanes, the big boy of retail, Wal-Mart, said just the other day it's putting in more. While the company says no jobs are being eliminated, Wal-Mart notes that every second in average checkout time saved in all its American stores is $12 million in wages it can save. And there's also the question of who wants to stand behind a register for a whole shift anyway?

Jackie Gitmed: Well, I don't know why people say those are jobs that people don't want because I want my job. I'm fighting to keep my job.

Jackie Gitmed works as a cashier for a grocery chain out in Encino, Calif. She's been working as a cashier for 35 years. She says it's a good job -- benefits, pension -- and she likes it just fine.

Gitmed: My father was in the industry for 50 years. So I'm second generation. Actually, third generation, my grandmother was a cashier. So it's, you know, it's our chosen family profession. It sounds silly, it sounds crazy, but we all like it. We're people people.

But the grocery store where she works put in the self-checkout a few years ago -- workers there actually call them robots. No one got laid off, Gitmed says. But they did cut people's hours -- sometimes by 10 hours a week. And now instead of just working one machine, she oversees five checkouts. She says it's exhausting to manage her lane plus four robots, but here's the important part: It's a job that works for her, whatever an economist might say about good or bad jobs.

Gitmed: I cannot go pick up and go somewhere else and make the same kind of money. I'd have to start at the bottom and at 51 years old, quite frankly, no one is going to want to hire me.

Economic theory says that technological disruption shakes things up, but then the jobs get better. Machines make people more productive and so their pay should go up and their jobs should get more fulfilling.

David Autor: What you learned in economics class is half right, it's just not the whole story.

David Autor is an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies labor markets. He says technology does raise productivity and create more wealth. But now with innovation moving so fast, the benefits are only spreading in some directions.

Autor: Certainly the labor market has never been better for very highly-educated workers in the United States and when I say never, I mean never.

And there are many jobs toward the bottom of the workforce -- janitors, housekeepers, home health aids -- jobs robots don't do well. Autor calls this the "hourglass economy" -- the big squeeze is in the middle for both blue- and white-collar workers. Using Turbo Tax this year? OK, so maybe one less accountant. At Carnegie Mellon University's Roboworld in Pittsburgh, I saw a demonstration of a pharmacy robot that sorts and deliver pills for fictitious patients.

Pharmacist: Oh, so let's see here. So, for instance, here's Sun Kwan and she needs a little Abuteral. That's right so we'll scan that and the robot will get right to work.


Brancaccio: It all adds up.


Autor: So automation has again -- and very heavily actually -- been nibbling away at those set of jobs, but interestingly as workers are displaced from those activities, it's not necessarily clear that it's onward and upward. It's not the same as the move from the farm to manufacturing.

And innovation is moving fast. There's the Google robot car that wasn't supposed to be possible. Amazingly futuristic, yes, but maybe not so amazing if you're a taxi driver. The possibility for robot jobs is almost endless.

Autor: It's absolutely correct that the range of tasks that will turn out to be automatable or computerizable is only going to get broader.

And, I was fascinated to learn even journalists are not immune.

Robot: Now, let's do the numbers.

Oh that's pretty plausible, we could hire that guy. That story tomorrow. On the road, I'm David Brancaccio for Marketplace.

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

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