All eyes are on the future of work and the impact that automation and machine learning will have on U.S. jobs. The blizzard of conferences, initiatives, articles, and reports on how to prepare for the changes technology will bring to our economy is important. But so is today — and it feels to us like the futurists are leaving behind what’s happening now.
Work currently does not work for millions of Americans. Nearly 11.5 million people who work as retail salespeople and cashiers and in food prep and service — the three largest occupations in the United States — earn poverty-level wages and have unpredictable schedules, few opportunities for success and growth, and little meaning and dignity in their jobs. These workers have bad jobs, and they need and deserve good jobs now, regardless of who’s going to be doing what in the future.
But in fact, transforming these bad jobs into good jobs is a good way to prepare for that future. Keep in mind that many retail and restaurant jobs require nonroutine manual labor, physical dexterity, and social interaction, which, according to MIT researchers Daron Acemoglu and David Autor, are less amenable to automation. But let’s say that automation really does reduce retail and restaurant employment. Good jobs stores and restaurants will do better in leveraging that automation — as well as better serving their customers, employees, and investors today. Here’s why.
Developing Skills that Will Matter in the Future
Thought leaders and futurists name complex problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity as the most important future job skills. But at good jobs companies, these very skills are already demanded, developed, and put to use.
Companies that offer good jobs today — with decent wages, predictable schedules, and opportunities for success and growth — do so by combining investment in people with operational choices that increase their employees’ productivity and contributions. We call this approach the Good Jobs Strategy. One of the key choices they make is empowering employees to make decisions to benefit their customers and involving employees in improvement.
For example, Mercadona, a good jobs retailer that’s Spain’s largest supermarket chain, uses its employees’ creative and problem-solving skills to suggest product, packaging, and transportation improvements that have already saved the company millions of euros. Mercadona’s store employees are empowered to order products and present them in a way that satisfies their customers and improves company performance.
At Costco, another good jobs retailer, store managers are empowered to display merchandise and provide input into the merchandising system. A merchandising algorithm does provide insight into what should be stocked, but the store managers are on the floor every day, putting their own and their employees’ problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity — the skills of the future — to work today. When that future comes, who will have the competitive advantage?
Seeing Automation as a Complement to People
The Good Jobs Strategy enables companies to make the most of their employees’ full potential. So good jobs companies are less likely to focus on machines replacing workers and more likely to focus on machines as a valuable complement to their valuable people. When one of us visited Mercadona’s fully automated distribution center, the director said, “Its construction was based on one premise: Don’t make a person do what a machine can do. The only effort we want from our employees is for them to give us their skills and their knowledge.”
When asked about automation in retail, a good jobs company CEO who recently visited our class at MIT said he saw automation as a force multiplier. Right now, his employees do many tasks (such as mopping floors and counting change) that don’t directly add to the customer experience. If robots can perform these functions in the future, his employees can focus that much more on providing even better customer experience. “Anyone’s employees can mop a floor,” he said, “but not every company trains and supports their staff to provide excellent customer service.” He knows his company already has a competitive advantage — its frontline workers — and that automation will only increase their value.
Indeed, as our colleagues Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue in their book The Second Machine Age, humans working hand in hand with machines do better work than either does by itself. Chess-playing computers can now beat even grandmasters like Garry Kasparov, but in so-called “freestyle chess,” human-computer teams beat computers. So if Amazon’s new cashier-free test store succeeds and eliminates the need for people to count change, good jobs companies — including their frontline workers — will probably be delighted!
Ability to Implement New Technologies
A company that engages its workforce now will not only provide good jobs and good customer experience today but also will be best prepared for whatever the robotics revolution brings. It’s easy to forget that technology rollouts require an engaged frontline. Even in the future, robots won’t just walk in the door, wave to the old employees on the way out, and get to work. Customers will need to be educated and supported along the way to greater efficiencies. Systems that work in labs and boardrooms will have hiccups in stores that require troubleshooting. Collaborative, productive, empowered employees will be best equipped to help companies roll out new innovations. They will gain new skills in the process, a win for everyone.
In fact, rollouts have sometimes gone badly — not yielding the expected benefits on very large investments — partly because the frontlines were not involved in the process. For example, when Bob Nardelli became the CEO of Home Depot, he started investing heavily in systems and technologies. In 2005 alone, Home Depot spent $1 billion on automating merchandising and store processes. But these changes, sensible in themselves, were accompanied by reduced investment in associates and were largely forced on the associates and store managers. Many of the systems either failed or fell short of their promised impact due to mismanaged rollouts, lack of user training, or because of lack of fit to in-store needs — in part because store associates were not involved.
Mercadona, on the other hand, spent €600 million between 2005 and 2008 to install the most up-to-date logistics and in-store retail technologies, and the rollout went smoothly because their workers were engaged in the process. Nobody was laid off — so the workers didn’t see the new technology as the enemy. They were well trained in the new technology and had the time — as well as the autonomy — to help customers get used to it. It helped that as part of its Good Jobs Strategy, Mercadona has a laser focus on the customer and the new in-store technologies were developed not just to increase efficiencies but also to make the customer experience better.
So despite a large expense and no downsizing, Mercadona’s productivity went up. Sales per employee went from 1979,142 euros in 2005 to 232,260 euros in 2008. That is what the Good Jobs Strategy is all about — now and in the future.