Walmart looks to slash 7,000 jobs through the use of robots.
Walmart has announced that it plans to replace 7,000 jobs within the company with automated systems; a move which has added to concerns over the replacement of employment opportunities with cost-cutting technology. While this announcement only accounts for a small number of the company’s jobs, there are already plans to increase the role of robot operatedroles within Walmart’s operations.
Will robots increase unemployment?
Walmart’s plan to replace 7,000 jobs with automated systems is not the first such announcement, as several companies – including Wendy’s and Foxconn – have already replaced numerous jobs with robotic systems. Foxconn cut a huge 60,000 factory jobs earlier this year, and Wendy’s announced that it would reduce the number of server jobs by the implementation of customer operated systems.
However, while self-service checkouts in grocery stores paved the way for fast-food outlets to move away from human servers, Walmart’s announcement has gone a step further by cutting skilled labor. The 7,000 jobs being axed under Walmart’s plans are predominantly within the company’s accounting and invoicing departments. Such a move raises serious concerns over how far robotic and computer systems will encroach upon human employment opportunities. Walmart has looked to soothe concerns by suggesting that these employees will retain jobs within the company, but simply not within the same role as before. However, for many workers who have spent years working in a given department, this is not necessarily an especially reassuring promise. One employee spoke to the Wall Street Journal saying that after 15 years in her job, she was not happy to face a shop floor role, and as such she told the newspaper, “I’m getting my resume together.”
Despite these issues, if Walmart and other such companies do offer employees an internal move then concerns over unemployment could be allayed. However, there are clearly a finite number of roles within any organization, and if automation spreads throughout a company then it seems inevitable that people will no longer have work.
Where else will robotics find a role?
Walmart spokeswoman, Deisha Barnett, said that the group’s move to automated “cash recycler” machines had been given trial runs across 500 locations, and that these had “seen many make smooth transitions during the pilot.”
However, it could be only the beginning for trials of automated services, as Walmart has already patented further technology to reduce the need for human staff.
Earlier this year, the world’s largest retailer announced that it had patented “motorized transport units” that have the initial role of automatically driving shopping carts around the stores and returning themselves to the correct area. Although this would only impact on a few jobs, the technology is expected to allow the movement of stock, scanning of items, checking of inventories and even trash collection.
Lorenzo Lopez, of Walmart, insisted that this was to “revolutionize retail using technology to better serve customers”, but many observers believe that there are serious worries over the impact of reducing the human presence in retail. Bloomberg claims that a rise in crime within stores this year is due to reduced staffing levels, and the reduction in roles for people looks to extend beyond just customer facing roles.
In June of this year, Walmart told Reuters that they were 6-9 months away from being able to start using drones within their warehouses. While this has yet to begin, it looks like yet another area in which human workers may lose out to electronic systems that save the employer money, but could cost the wider economy in the long term.
It is important to recognize that technology has always changed the role of people within industry, and that concerns over the impact of these changes have often been over blown. However, the World Economic Forum has warned of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution” within employment, and that by 2020, around 5 million jobs will be lost.
The Industrial Revolution of the 19 th Century saw groups like the Luddites destroying the machines they saw as enemies of working people, and yet their concerns did not reflect the long term opportunities for work in a changed world. As Walmart and other companies look to increase the role of automated workers, it has to be hoped that they also ensure new opportunities for people to find employment within a technologically changing world.