The automation pandemic wave may be bad news for workers

“It can attract a less skilled worker and make them fit into our system much more easily,” said Ryan Hillis, vice president of Meltwich. “It certainly broadens the scope of who you can have behind that grid.”

With more advanced kitchen equipment, software that allows online orders to flow directly to the restaurant, and other technological advancements, Meltwich only needs two or three workers in a shift, rather than three or four, Hillis said.

Such changes, multiplied by thousands of businesses in dozens of industries, could significantly change the outlook for workers. Professor Warman, the Canadian economist, said technologies developed for a purpose tend to extend to similar tasks, which could make it difficult for workers affected by automation to move to another occupation or industry.

“If an entire job sector is affected, where do those workers go?” Professor Warman said. Women, and to a lesser extent people of color, are likely to be disproportionately affected, he added.

The grocery business has long been a source of stable, often unionized jobs for people without a college degree. But technology is changing the industry. Self-checkout lanes have reduced the number of ATMs; many stores have simple robots to patrol aisles for spills and check inventory; and warehouses have become increasingly automated. In April, Kroger opened a 375,000-square-foot warehouse with more than 1,000 robots that package food for delivery customers. The company is even experimenting with delivering groceries via drone.

Other companies in the industry are doing the same. Jennifer Brogan, a spokeswoman for Stop & Shop, a New England-based grocery chain, said technology enabled the company to better serve customers, and that it was a competitive necessity.

“Competitors and other players in the retail space are developing technologies and partnerships to lower their costs and deliver better service and value for customers,” he said. “Stop & Shop must do the same.”

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