Friday, August 30, 2013

Elevators, Tolls and Fast Food

A common thread runs through the items in the title.  I might also include gas stations, telephones and customer service.  This comes to mind because on Wednesday I saw a story about tolls on the bridges over the Ohio River and yesterday the big news was a strike by fast food workers demanding a $15 per hour wage.

The first report gave details about a new toll system for those bridges.  “Instead of using toll plazas where workers collect cash from motorists, the bridges will use tolling gantries that rely on electronic transponders and video cameras.”  Cars with transponders would be billed from a pre-paid account.  Those without would receive a bill in the mail sent to the address where the car was registered.  Canada has a similar system set up near Toronto, toll roads with no tollbooths.

Years ago each lane of a tollbooth had a toll taker.  Later they added exact change lanes and then the transponder lanes for cars with electronic passes.  In most places today real people occupy at most only about one third of the open lanes.  And then there were none (to quote Agatha Christie), at least on bridges to Louisville.

Those old enough will remember when gasoline was not self-service, when the only way to make a long-distance telephone call was to talk to an operator, when elevators had operators to drive them and manually open the doors, and when a call to customer service was answered by a live person.  In all these cases, companies figured out a way to use technology to eliminate most of these low skill jobs.  We now pump our own gas, push the elevator button, dial directly and wade through those aggravating telephone menus.

When I read the following day that “[f]ast-food workers staged strikes at McDonald's and Burger Kings and demonstrated at other stores in sixty U.S. cities,” I thought about, the telephone operators, the service station attendants, the elevator operators, and now the tollbooth workers, and wondered how many people at fast-food corporate headquarters are thinking of ways to replace jobs with technology and customer do-it-yourself requirements.  Do we really need someone else to push the button on the cash register with the picture of the fries?  We already check ourselves out at the grocery store.  It’s not a big leap to imagine many of these low-skill jobs, which were originally targeted at teens and not someone trying to support a family of four, disappearing.

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