The co-bots are coming to fast food factories
Religion & Liberty Online

The co-bots are coming to fast food factories

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“We’re going to need to see your birth certificate,” the manager said, making a notation on my employment application, “But you’re hired. Show up a 10 a.m. on Thursday for training.”

I was too young and dumb to realize he was calling my bluff. I had to be 16 to take the job and I could barely pass for 14 (which I wouldn’t be for a another month). Yet instead of pointing out that I was lying about my age (which, obviously, I was), he figured he’d mark me down in the hired column and assume I’d be one of the dozen new people to not show up for the first day of work.

But I did show up, because I had nothing better to do. I was spending the summer with relatives in Houston, and to get me out of the house my aunt suggested I apply at McDonald’s. A new franchise had just opened and hiring almost anyone who applied. Fast-food outlets have a high worker turnover and new stores have any higher rates of attrition. The hiring manager knew he’d need to hire at least three times as many people they knew that most people wouldn’t last more than a week before getting quitting.

And that’s how I got my first factory job.

Five years later I would work a more traditional factory job (making emergency brakes in Moberly, Missouri), but McDonald’s was itself a factory, a place where “workers manufacture goods or operate machines processing one product into another.” That’s not how we think about the fast food restaurant industry, though. We consider them “service” jobs because of the direct engagement with customers, and because we tend to think of “manufacturing” as high-paying jobs that create durable goods.

But the line between traditional assembly line-type factories and food service factories is increasingly blurry. A prime example is Zume Pizza, a California delivery-only pizza chain that provides “healthy, artisan pizza to your doorstep in 15 minutes (or less).” Zume employs 50 people: 32 low-skilled employees working in either the kitchen or as delivery drivers and 18 others in executive, management or engineering roles. But they also employ several robots to work alongside the humans.

“We’re a co-bot situation,” says Julia Collins, the company’s co-founder and co-CEO. “There are humans and robots collaborating to make better food, to make more fulfilling jobs and to make a more stable working environment for the folks that are working with us.”

The bots cost between $25,000 and $35,000 each, but the investment will quickly pay off, Collins told MSNBC: “That cost is a lot lower, as you can imagine, than the salary of a human being with benefits.”

Zume is located in Mountain View, California, where the current minimum wage is $10.30 an hour and will be rising to $15 by 2018. Assuming two employees work 20 hour a week at $10.30 an hour, Zume could replace them with a robot and pay off the initial costs in just over a year. Once the minimum wage increases, though, it would take only about 10 months to recoup the costs of replacing a worker with a robot. (And that’s not counting other costs to the employer, like Social Security taxes.)

In 1983, the fast food factory I worked for hired more than 60 people—almost all low-skilled workers—for just one franchise. But in the near future, when co-bot arrangements become more common, the number of people needed to run a McDonald’s could drop to less than half a dozen.

There’s not a lot we could do to change the rise of the robots in the service sector. And we probably shouldn’t want to since the benefits will be widely shared. But the artificial increase in the wages for low-skilled workers (through $15 minimum wage laws) are causing the transition to occur faster than we can keep pace.

Many low-skilled workers need those types of fast food factory jobs to learn basic work skills that are transferrable to other industries. But the co-bots will soon be reducing the numbers of jobs available for them, especially those with the lowest skills.

Allowing the free market determine the price of labor won’t solve the problem. But it would allow for a smoother transition and give low-skilled workers time to adjust. While we may not be worried about the co-bots coming to take our own jobs or those of our coworkers, we should be concerned enough about the poor and unskilled to buy them some time by letting the market set their wages.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).