McDonald’s automation a sign of declining service sector employment

News this week that McDonald’s restaurants in Europe will be replacing acne-faced teenagers with glass-plated touch screens for order-taking might make you wonder if the fast food chain is committed to its “service with a smile” slogan.

But joking aside, customers at UK restaurants (where the screens will make their first appearance) will likely be the ones smiling after they complete their transactions. Not only will using a tablet-like device to order a Big Mac feel like you’re at some sort of futuristic (possibly Moon-based) McDonald’s, but the average customer will complete their order three to four seconds faster. There’s also a reduced chance of error, as the customer inputs their order directly instead of communicating it to an employee who inputs it.

Brian Jackson, associate editor,

The fast food giant isn’t the first major firm to try front-facing, self-serve technology in place of paying low-wage service jobs. Walmart, Loblaws, and other grocers have implemented self-checkout touch screens in place of at least some working cashiers. It’s telling when a company is willing to best that an honour-system checkout will still save them more money than paying someone a close-to minimum wage salary.

Nor is the service sector the first to see jobs lost to automation. Many manufacturing sector workers could empathize with being made redundant by some sort of cybernetic machine. Specifically-designed robots have taken the place of many widget handlers on the lines of factory floors around the world.

That post-industrial trend had two spin-off factors that lead to a booming service sector in North America. First, workers now had more free time because robots were doing most of the grunt work – and they needed something to do with that free time. Second, there was ample workforce available to fill that demand because of all the laid off workers.

But now that automation is eating into those service sector jobs, where will the economy move to next?

If Richard Florida is right, it’ll be a huge boom in creative jobs. The professor of regional economic development at Carnegie Mellon University and author of The Rise of the Creative Class says that a group of well-educated individualists are nabbing well-paying jobs in a number of vertical industries including technology, entertainment, journalism, finance, high-end manufacturing  and the arts. This group of people shares an ethos of merit, being different, and individuality, Florida says. You can spot them wearing nose rings and throwing Frisbees.

But will there really be enough creative jobs out there to replace the service jobs our economy will shed in the coming years? The North American job market is about 30 per cent service jobs at the moment, it’s hard to imagine a world where one-third of the workforce is dedicated to being creative. Yet a growing diversification of platforms and technology channels also makes it seem possible. If Apple’s App Store can support hundreds of thousands of apps, then its easy to see an overall smartphone market that eventually supports millions of revenue generating apps.

Perhaps it’s time to start retraining those McDonald’s employees replaced by touch screens to start developing content for touch screens themselves. It shouldn’t be too hard – instead of saying “Do you want fries with that?” they could try asking “Do you want apps with that?”

Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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