The Next Threat of Automation – Part-time and Summer Jobs

(A KFC outlet in Bandung, Indonesia. Image from Wikipedia)

I used to work at a fast-food restaurant. It was KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken). For about 3 months*.

My first role was ‘buzzer‘. Yes, because the counter girls would actually hit the buzzer for me to pick up the food at the counter and sent it to the right table. Apart from that, I need to clean up the floor, the tables and chairs (not fun if there are customers still lingering around although it’s closing time, so we have to implicitly tell them that they need to leave) and took the garbage out. After about a month, I was ‘promoted’ to a position called ‘backup‘, mostly to clean up the counter floor and kitchen, flipping burgers and fries and washed the dishes (there’s another backup where she’s supposed to do the dishes, but I never saw her did it, not even once).

It was a good but exhausting, yet worth-it experience. At least occasionally we can take home whatever extras left (Most of the time it was just a mashed potatoes. Only occasionally we managed to take home the chicken). And my roommates would ask ‘what do we have for supper?’ once I returned. Every. Single. Night. And yet, even after came back to the hostel, I still need to finish my assignment and coursework. So I could only sleep at around 2 or 3 a.m. Wake up at 6, went to classes until late afternoon and go to work after it’s finished. Same cycle during weekdays for about 3 months.

Back then it was not because of lack of money. No, I didn’t need more money than I need because I already got my scholarship and my family gave me a weekly ‘stipend’. I’m not a big spender, so I hardly spent those on things like shoes, cybercafe, Starbucks, watching movies or even dating (I was a bit shy back then)! It wasn’t really a great money to start with, and I hardly got any free food because my hour was less than 6 hours per day (only those worked more than 6 hour per day entitled for a break and free meal, so I only enjoyed that perks during Saturday and Sunday). I worked mostly because I really want to know how hard it is to earn it on your own. And getting some real-world experience dealing with real people (and their behaviour).

Sounds noble? Maybe. But it was also my real job experience. It taught me about showing up for work and do it with discipline. It also taught me that not all your co-workers are reliable one. And it also taught me that not all customers are right.

Feel free to bash me for the last sentence.

Overall, it was a good experience for me, and I have no regret doing it.


The Rise of Automation

(Alibaba’s Hema supermarket in Shanghai, China. Image from Business Insider)

But while I worked there,  I can’t help but think ‘these tasks are so repetitive, that soon robots will take over to do it’. Although it was a good experience for any teens to get experience in F&B business and customer service (as well as getting some money and free good), the fact remains that most of that tasks are repetitive and it’s just a matter of time before it gets automated.

If the world of automation is an apocalypse, then Thanos is already here and yet The Avengers are nowhere to be seen.

The fact remains that the fast-food companies are among the first opportunity for teenagers to get their first working experience. And in this era of all-things-digital and automated, that opportunity has started to shrink. For example, McDonald’s has started to deploy an ordering kiosks to their US locations, and by 2020 most of their 14,000 locations will be installed with such kiosks (1,000 stores per quarter). And at the other side of the pond, Alibaba also has started a Hema supermarket with similar idea, as part of ‘New Retail’ concept, a term coined by none other than their flamboyant-yet-charismatic founder and CEO, Jack Ma. And Alibaba’s competitor, JD has also launched similar store in Indonesia, home of the most-populous and highest GDP country in ASEAN. Not to mention the ambitious Jeff Bezos with Amazon Go retail concept.

(JD’s X Mart. Image from Google)

These are the companies that have vision, resources and influence to shape the future of retail and F&B industries. Not only they’re deploying such stores that they actually own, quite a number of them are already thinking of licensing such technology to any retailer (presumably less big in size, and pretty soon to mom-and-pop stores) that might be interested. Maybe in the future, every retail stores will operate 24/7 like 7-Eleven, sans actual human being behind the counter. Yes, the opportunities may still exist at the back of the store (sorting boxes and stuff) but how soon that even that job would be considered as more suitable to robots than human? Amazon has such robots, what’s the guarantee that in 10 years time 7-11 won’t use similar technology at their stores?

(McDonald’s kiosk. Image credit to Hollis Johnson/Business Insider)

Yes, if we look at the example of McDonald’s and Alibaba’s Hema mentioned above, there are still jobs currently available for our teens. McDonald’s is not going to replace all their cashiers overnight, so our teens still have like 2 years opportunity to work with them. Somebody still need to flip the burgers, the chicken still need to be cooked and the dining floor and tables are not going to clean it up by itself. Even with plenty of automation and robots, Alibaba’s Hema still need chef to cook the dishes, delivery personnel to deliver things ordered by their customers  and somebody needs to stock up the items on the aisles.

But for how long? 20 years ago, how many of us would believe if someone said one day there’s going to be a small robot that can vacuum or mop our floor autonomously? But now, a company called iRobot managed to come up with a commercially successful Roomba vacuum cleaners and Braava floor moppers, as well as their Mirra for pool cleaning. Yes, it looks creepy (at least for me, at first), but it did the job. Now, if that kind of autonomous small devices are available for home, what’s the chance that iRobot won’t develop a larger version of those and deemed the position like ‘buzzer’ and ‘backup’ as obsolete? Who can say for certain (except those with iRobot) that they already eyeing a commercial version of Roomba and Braava to be used at a fast-food outlets? Surely those tiny creatures wouldn’t need a break, let alone free meal, dental or healthcare.

(Kiva robots at Amazon fulfilment centre. Image from Reuters/Business Insider)

And what about Amazon Robotics (previously known as Kiva Systems, bought by Amazon in 2012 for $775 million), a company that manufacture mobile robotic fulfilment systems? The robots are currently being used at Amazon warehouses or fulfilment centres, and has saved about $22 million per fulfilment centre, and Amazon has planned to deploy more of it to their other warehouses, thus a cost savings f around $800 million (albeit a one-time cost savings). The benefits? Less cycle times, more space that can be utilised and less headache for any human staff that may take emergency leave, planning a strike or just plain MC.

With those examples, one at the lower end of pyramid (house) and the other at the high end (large warehouses), what’s the chance that iRobot or Amazon Robotics of the world are developing a robot to fulfil something in between? If they don’t want to do it, surely some other startups in Shenzen or Beijing will do. And China is always known to fight at a lower price than their competitors say, from USA or Europe. We already have company that develops a kitchen equipment to flip burgers, so it’s just a matter of time before it can cook a chicken (Secret Recipe anyone?) or prepare our favourite pizza.

If our teenagers are still looking for a part-time job (or even full time employment) to get some dough, seems like they have to think again about their option (or rather, a lack of it).


Why Part-time Jobs Are Important, Especially For Teens


Why part-time jobs are important for teens?

It’s because that’s one of the entry-level employment for number of teens (apart from becoming i.e a promoter at a shopping malls or working at a gas station). The last time I checked, no fast-food outlets require a diploma or a degree to join them (if you apply for managerial level, that’s another story). And the job would give an invaluable experience to our teens before the get into a more challenging working experience later in their life.

And there’s nothing wrong with flipping burgers at McDonald’s. Even the former CEOs of McDonald’s Jim Skinner and Fred Turner flipped burgers somewhere in their career life before becoming their CEO. So as Jeff Bezos, who used to work as cook with Mickey D., which gave him the first view and experience on ‘customer-obsession’ business environment and strategy. Ditto Barbara Corcoran who used to be a waitress and now a real-estate investor and one of the Shark Tank’s investors. Alexis Ohanian, one of the co-founder of Reddit, said that “I learned basically everything I’ve ever needed to know about customer service” by working as a waiter at Pizza Hut.

Nor less important is by working as part-timer, it will instil a sense of empathy later in our teens life, when they no longer a teen and starts their life as working adult. I must admit that even after short months of working at fast-food outlet, cleaning the floor and dishes and took the garbage out at the end of the day, it taught me that no job is worthless. Sure, flipping burgers might not give a huge financial return like flipping houses. But it taught the idea that no job is lower than the other. The waiter or waitress that we deal with now could be the neurosurgeon that operates us in 20 years time. And the cook behind the counter could become our founder and CEO one day.

Not everyone were lucky enough to born and raised on a silver platter and spent their summer jobs at their parents holding company or some investment banks in Wall Street or Canary Wharf, because not everyone are members of the lucky sperm club.


Tectonic Shift for Our Teenagers?

So what are the options for our teens?

Automated fast-food still few years to go before it becomes mainstream, so I’d say they still have a chance to work there, if they’re really looking into it. Or maybe in few years time majority of our teens would be proficient in programming that their part-time job is to maintain and troubleshoot those kitchen equipment. Yes, there’s UberEats, GrabFood, Deliveroo and slew of other delivery services available for our teens, before drones or robots take over that tasks for good.

Or maybe in the future our teens would shunt part-time employment altogether and starts their own lemonade stand. That’s also a good start to entrepreneurship. After all, no companies yet has develop a robot to become entrepreneur. If that happens, we human beings are truly doomed.



*I worked there when I was under Pre-U program. That outlet was located inside a nice shopping mall, and I ‘resigned’ after 3 months because I continued my study at the main campus, which was quite a distance from that mall.. That KFC outlet I worked at thrives, until their main competitor (McDonald’s) opened their outlet few meters away, and it (KFC outlet that I worked at) was closed few years after that. Maybe it’s too close to its main competitor or the location itself wasn’t really that strategic. That shopping mall still exists though. I went to visit that shopping mall from time to time just to reminisce my working days there. When I was in main campus, I got the opportunity to work at a cybercafe during weekend (it was a big deal since Internet mania has just started back then). The best part? I can surf the Internet for free, for as long there’s a customer. 

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