Loose Lucy’s battling robots in the retail apocalypse
Columbia’s “mom-and-pop hippie shop” has kept its doors open for more than two decades because it offers customers something online shopping and self-checkout kiosks can’t.
“We offer a human interaction,” James “Don” McCallister said Tuesday from his Five Points boutique, Loose Lucy’s. The polychromatic portal to the past offers tie-dyed clothing, tapestries, Grateful Dead posters and jewelry — all set against a classic rock soundtrack and the pervasive smell of incense.
“There is no reason people can’t get any of this stuff online.”
McCallister is confident that he and his employees are safe, for now, from automation eliminating their jobs. Loyal customers still visit the shop for the “good vibes” or to indulge a memory from their youth.
But a growing body of research predicts robots will soon perform many American jobs, in part or in whole, in the next decade. Hardest hit could be states like South Carolina where cashiers, retail workers and laborers are top jobs, employing thousands.
While less than five percent of jobs today will completely go away, many “robot-proof” jobs will change significantly because of automation, according to a new analysis by The Hechinger Report, a nonpartisan national outlet that covers education issues.
At least a third of the tasks in about 60 percent of U.S. jobs could be automated in 10 years while up to a third of current work hours will be automated, according to the report. Other studies have predicted similar trends, including globally, as companies find ways to automate more and more tasks once completed by humans. (See McDonald’s roll out of ordering kiosks or Amazon’s experimental convenience store where customers skip the check out altogether.)
Workers facing the greatest threat from robots are those who perform repetitive and predictable tasks requiring low skill, training or education. That includes South Carolina’s 64,400 cashiers, an occupation second only to retail sales jobs, which employ 69,360 people in the state, according to a 2018 S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce report.
Jobs in food preparation, some predictable machinery operation and office support functions such as human resources and payroll would be threatened by automation too, the report found.
Many cashiers already share their jobs with computer-driven self-checkout kiosks that scan items and ring up customers in aisles alongside them. Retail salespeople, too, have seen their jobs disappear first with the advent of big box stores that drowned out the Main Street America shops and stores, and later, with online shopping giants that now dominate the marketplace.
Automation also is continually changing manufacturing jobs, a big and growing sector in South Carolina’s economy. Some of the most touted manufacturers in the state, such as Boeing and Volvo, are working with partner companies and universities to improve the automated processes that build their products, a trend that could reduce the need for some jobs.
Robots and automated assembly lines already perform many of the tasks once assigned to low-skilled workers in manufacturing. More automation in that sector will shift the demand for human talent even more to workers with the education and technical skills capable of designing, maintaining and operating machines and computers.
As a result, “blue collar jobs that people used to get, where you could have a reasonable middle income and support your family, those are harder to come by” today, said John Warner, a self-described “serial entrepreneur” and CEO of Accessible Diagnostics, an S.C. company that makes blood-free glucose test products.
For example, a 55-year-old capacitor maker with a high-school degree who gets laid off has a problem, he said. That worker is “not going to find a job making the kind of compensation (he) was making anywhere else.”
“That doesn’t mean that there’s not going to be an advanced manufacturing job created somewhere,” but it’s not going to be for those lower-skilled workers, he said.
Robots change the workforce
Even as new jobs are created in South Carolina as technology advances, the state doesn’t always have enough people to fill those jobs.
For example, of nearly 70,000 jobs requiring more than a high-school education, there are 11,185 fewer workers than are needed to fill those positions, according to the state’s Department of Employment and Workforce.
One solution to filling jobs is to train employees in house, said Grant Phillips, president of REI Automation, a company that designs and builds automated assembly lines and robotics for companies, including Volvo.
“At REI, a majority of the people that we hire for our company have little to no background in automated machine development. We train them in-house for work,” he said.
There’s also no indication the race to automate will slow down anytime soon, experts say, noting it’s been happening since the Industrial Revolution.
“There’s a lot of press right now about are robots taking jobs, but ... people have been saying that since the Luddites were breaking up textile mills,” said David Clayton, executive director of the Greenville Technical College Center for Manufacturing Innovation. He was referring to 19th Century English textile workers destroying textile machinery in protest, saying they were threatening their jobs and livelihood.
In manufacturing, “most of the tasks that robots replace are the dumb, the dull, the dangerous,” Clayton said. “Almost by definition, they’re not interesting: somebody loading a part into a grinding machine, picking up a pallet and moving it from point A to point B.”
While those jobs are going away, the upside is the jobs available in manufacturing require more skill and fetch higher salaries, he said. Schools like Greenville Tech are training workers for those jobs, he added.
A selling point he shares with students? The average wage for someone with an associates degree in manufacturing-rich Greenville County is $67,000, he said.
“They’re not firing people,” Clayton said of companies that automate. “They’re finding more interesting work for the people who are there.”
Creative workers safe for now
Improving the accuracy and efficiency of manufacturing is a constant effort, evidenced in the high-tech research centers at Clemson, Greenville Tech and the University of South Carolina. The academic research centers partner with companies to find solutions to their problems.
At the University of South Carolina McNAIR Center, for example, engineers are working on a range of projects. In one lab, researchers are printing components for use in different applications using a 3-D printer. In another project, done in partnership with Boeing aircraft manufacturer, researchers are using an industrial-scale machine to fabricate lightweight but extremely strong materials for use in building aircraft.
Thursday, USC rolled out its digital transformation lab at the McNAIR Center. There projects are using digital processes to solve a range of problems, from how to desalinate water to how to ensure premature babies are getting the right care.
Even though automation and robots reduce the need for some lower-level jobs, they also increase the accuracy and precision of the jobs being performed and the potential for technology to meet society’s needs, said Abdel-Moez Bayoumi, associate dean of corporate relations for USC’s College of Engineering and Computing.
And behind every automated process or robot, he added, are humans needed to design, maintain, assess and improve those processes: “Automation means a computer means a brain to program the computer.”
South Carolina’s aerospace industry has exploded since Boeing located here, Bayoumi said. There are now about 400 aerospace-related companies in South Carolina, according to the state commerce department.
Eventually, even jobs that require higher-order critical thinking also could be replaced by machines, Warner of Greenville said.
Forget about ATM machines replacing bankers or computers scanning groceries at the checkout counter, he added.
“Artificial intelligence is going to begin dealing with some of the more creative types of jobs. It’s going to start to process massive amounts of data and start to be able to make some of those decisions.”
That research is underway, but still in its infancy, he added.
“The Luddites weren’t wrong.”