Robot Workers Filling In Gaps Amid Labor Shortage

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Cleaning robot Franzi makes sure floors are spotless at the Munich hospital where she works, and has taken on a new role during the pandemic: cheering up patients and staff.
Cleaning robot Franzi makes sure floors are spotless at the Munich hospital where she works, and has taken on a new role during the pandemic: cheering up patients and staff. AFPTV / Pauline CURTET

Many employers have grown concerned by the labor shortage, as there are more job openings than unemployed workers.

In a New York Times op-ed, MIT economics professor David Autor wrote that "the U.S. doesn’t have a job quantity problem; instead, it has a job quality problem."

Some unemployed Americans are seeking jobs, though not urgently. They cite COVID fears, care responsibilities, and a financial cushion among the reasons to not join the workforce. Autor noted that "our economy has generated vast numbers of low-paid, economically insecure jobs with few prospects for career advancement."

Unemployment payments are believed to have slowed hiring in industries like restaurants, retailers and hospitality.

A minor fix to the labor shortage may soon arrive. 

“The labor shortages will start to abate in September and this fall, but it’s not going to be an immediate fix,” economist Dante DeAntonio of Moody’s Analytics told USA Today. “This could well play out over two, three years.”

What happens to the labor market until then?

A recent CNN report provided a glimpse into how the labor shortage has led one Dallas restaurant to rent robots for $15 a day.

Espartaco Borga, the owner of La Duni Latin Cafe, told CNN that he had been struggling to find busboys and other employees to fill positions, as business started to reopen after the pandemic.

"All of a sudden we had 50 to 100% more business than we did, even prior to COVID, with a third of the staff. So everybody was getting overwhelmed, overworked and frustrated, both customers and staff," Borga said.

"The only part that didn't come back were the employees." 

Borga contacted American Robotech, a robotics company that specializes in contactless autonomous delivery to explore his options.

"The very next day they showed up, they mapped the restaurant, and they assigned the tables numbers within 45 minutes," he said. 

"After a day, the girl at the expo line was in love with this because her arm didn't hurt after carrying 60 trays in a day."

American Robotech explains on its website that its robots are created to boost the turnaround efficiency in restaurants.

American Robotech's website provides a profile of its HolaBot, which reads: “Holabot is a multi-scenarios collecting robot which innovatively applies autonomous robot to the food, office, industrial and other fields. Equipped with large volume, high carrying capacity, pagering function, gesture recognition, and voice control module, HolaBot can boost the turnaround efficiency in restaurants."

Borga explained that the robots were not taking anyone's jobs because no one wanted to work the job. "No one wants to work in hospitality right now," he said.

Borga said that the costs saved from robot employees will help him pay his human employees more for doing less work.

"They don't even see them as what they are, which is a tablet on wheels," he said. "They see them as part of the service experience because these robots have a personality, they can interact. If you touch them, they giggle and they tell you things."

The robots work to make things easier on the customer and the server. The robots assist the servers in things like greeting customers, taking food to tables, and singing “Happy Birthday.”

Robotics to fill the labor gap goes beyond restaurants. Amazon drew attention in June with warehouses introducing robots called "Ernie" and "Bert." In May, the Wall Street Journal reported about a Tennessee-based logistics services company that used self-driving robotics to help fill online orders and even looked into autonomous tractors for towing carts with pallets.

There are a number of companies that offer rent-a-robot services. In August, Reuters compiled a list that included Locus Robotics, Path Robotics, Rapid Robotics, Fetch Robotics, Vicarious, and Formic Technologies.

Reuters cited how Westec Plastics, a small California-based plastic molding factory, has rented three robots from Rapid Robotics at a cost of up to $3,750 a month per robot.

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