Barrier protects checkout clerk at a grocery store in North Vancouver, March 22, 2020. (The Canadian Press)

Barrier protects checkout clerk at a grocery store in North Vancouver, March 22, 2020. (The Canadian Press)

COLUMN: Automated checkouts are altering the job market

There has been a growing opposition to these devices, especially in the past few months

I used the automated checkout system at a store the other day.

The cashiers all had long lines and I didn’t feel like waiting. The automated checkout was a simple and convenient way to pay for my purchases. While the process lacked human interaction, it was easy to use. All I had to do was scan the items and pay using cash, a debit card or a credit card.

Automated checkouts are nothing new. The technology has been available for several years and the devices are in place at grocery stores and other retailers in larger communities. And long before automated checkouts were introduced, automated banking machines have been in use. That technology has existed since the 1960s and the devices have been commonplace since the mid-1980s.

However, there has been a growing opposition to automated checkouts, especially in the past few months. The reason behind this opposition is that the machines are seen as a way for employers to cut costs at the expense of their staff. If automated checkouts become the norm, cashier jobs will be lost.

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I can understand the concern about job losses, but the rise of these machines is not the first time certain jobs, once common, have been eliminated because of technology or cost-cutting measures.

When I was in high school, I did some work bagging groceries at a supermarket. Today, it’s rare to see anyone on staff doing that job. Customers bag their own groceries.

Friends of mine had high school jobs pumping gas at filling stations. Again, such jobs are rare these days. I can’t recall the last time I was at a full-service gas station.

Technological changes have affected other jobs as well.

The position of elevator operator has largely disappeared, although a few such jobs still remain in some luxury hotels and in buildings with older elevators. The role simply is not needed as modern elevators are easy to operate. This position was phased out by the end of the 1970s.

The work of a telephone operator has changed as phone users can call a number directly, without having to get an operator to place the call. And today, internal switchboards at larger companies have become automated, with callers entering a number or using voice commands to reach the person or department they want.

If automated checkouts become common, the role of a cashier could eventually see the same fate as the role of a gas jockey, a telephone operator or an elevator operator.

And yet these changes we have seen and are seeing so far will pale in comparison to the effects of another technological advancement. The development of self-driving vehicles could have a huge impact on employment.

The technology already exists, although at present self-driving vehicles are still in development stages. Still, it appears to be a matter of time before self-driving vehicles begin to replace human-driven vehicles.

There are an estimated 250,000 truck drivers in Canada, according to industry figures. This number doesn’t include bus drivers, taxi drivers and others who drive for a living. If these jobs are automated, it will mean a significant shift in our employment landscape in Canada.

Still, the changes to employment resulting from automation and technology do not necessarily mean Canada’s unemployment rate will rise dramatically.

At present, employers in the tourism and hospitality are in need of good staff, especially during the tourist season. These jobs will be difficult if not impossible to automate, at least with our present level of technology. In addition, some new jobs are emerging, particularly in fields related to computers and communications technology. Those who can adapt to those roles will be able to cope with our changing world.

As for those who cannot or will not adapt, well, I haven’t met too many elevator operators lately.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.

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