Its 2029 and the past decade has seen more change to our food system than the 50 years leading up to 2019. Kiosks take the orders. Robots flip the burgers. Autonomous trucks deliver the food to retail. Mobile grocery stores even bring the food directly to the customer. It would seem that the future of work in the food industry is no work at all. When machines do everything, there’s not much left for the rest of us to do. At least thats always the concern. In this industry the concern is quite merited. The food industry employs 15.3 million workers in the US, making it the country’s second largest private-sector employer. The most endangered workers are retail clerks, cooks, food prep and transportation workers. Those fields represent the majority of the frontline food industry workforce. What will come of those jobs? And what does the future hold for the people holding those jobs today? Based on the technological developments at hand, the aforementioned careers face existential threats.
Labor represents about 30% of the cost of running a restaurant. Cutting those costs represents tremendous opportunity for business owners and savings for their customers. The need for food workers reduces as labor is turned over to automation, and even the customers themselves. Ordering online and in person via touchscreen or self checkout options represent encroachment on food service labor that could threatens jobs. The emerging technologies that offload labor onto robots poses even greater threats to food industry workers. Entrepreneurs across the globe are developing robotic kitchen hands that prepare salads, flip burgers, and fry fish. For now, they are just experiments and novelties, but entire restaurants are being planned around these concepts. As expected, the human labor for such operations is minimal. The robots operate faster than their human counterparts, more efficiently, and at lower costs. Robots are impacting the food industry outside of the kitchen as well. As I wrote about in No Hands: The Autonomous Future of Trucking, delivery roles as we know them are set to go away with the rise of autonomous vehicles. This directly impacts truckers transporting food materials and the delivery driver dropping off your pepperoni pizza.
With robots serving as such superior options for the aforementioned roles, one would expect a glut of food workers to hit the unemployment line. But some economists posit just the opposite. Will the coming advances in restaurant robotics and automation reduce employee headcount at each location? Yes. Will this reduce the total amount of jobs in the industry? Maybe. Its complicated…
Even in the wake of certain job loss, there are scenarios in which food industry automation serves as a net job creator. While the cost of food cooked at home is still far below that of even fast food restaurants, the labor for sourcing the food and clean up brings the total cost on par with fast casual establishments. Economists expect that customers would opt for eating out in greater numbers if doing so falls below the cost of food and labor at home. That increased demand leads to more restaurants and more jobs in the sector. This is with the assumption that automation will spare some of the labor opportunities at restaurants.
Roles more intensely focused on customer facing experiences or that maintain a high level of creativity are the most likely to remain in the food industry. These roles combine domain expertise, creativity, and technological advancements for food industry innovators to provide entirely new models for the way we feast in the future:
Man/Machine Teaming Manager
Early experiences with robots in the kitchen show that they far out perform their human counterparts. The future of work will be based on how well companies blend and extend the abilities of humans and machines by making them collaborative. The key task for this role is developing an interaction system through which humans and machines mutually communicate their capabilities, goals and intentions, and devising a task planning system for human-machine collaboration. The end goal is to create augmented hybrid teams that generate better business outcomes through human-machine collaboration. Teaming Managers already have their work cut out for them in bringing balance to this relationship in the kitchen.
Vertical farm consultant
Consumers want their food fresh and delivered more quickly than ever before. What better way to accomplish that than with a farm right outside of their restaurant or grocery store of choice? While demand increases, nature’s increasingly unpredictable impact on the produce supply chain applies pressure to grocers. Vertical farms address the need for stable, localized farming with aeroponic systems that grow food in controlled environments, unhindered by the impacts of global warming, while using a fraction of the water required by traditional farms. While vertical farming is enabled by the latest in artificial intelligence and agricultural technology, convening a community around food is a decidedly low-tech affair.
Mobile Grocery Proprietor
Ecommerce growth combined with cashless and cashier-less retail concepts endanger the jobs of retail clerks in stores. While legacy locations already contain the infrastructure to serve customers largely without the need of cashiers, new retail concepts still need the human touch if they are to gain enough traction to be profitable. Re-skilling cashiers in the finer points of evaluating produce and recommending dishes brings great value to otherwise confusing and impersonal mobile grocery stores. This role will combine an entrepreneurial spirit with tech savvy and knack for engaging customers face to face.
The innovations of Industry 4.0 will no doubt have vast impact on the food industry. The new technologies at play present an array of new opportunities and challenges for workers in the industry. Entirely new business models are emerging that take advantage of advancements in technology and cultural shifts around dining. Algorithms cut through the vast options for meals with suggestions based on budget, appetite, location, and dietary restrictions to ease decision making for weary diners. Small farms pair with autonomous truck companies to get their products into food deserts or other untapped markets. Food waste apps can track every ounce of food that doesn’t get sold, helping companies become more efficient through alternate uses for leftovers. To make these new models work, while still supporting legacy systems holding the industry together, food companies need a new recipe for success. One that revolves around adopting new concepts by training workers to excel in new environments and building on their pre-existing knowledge of best practices. An appetite for adaptability is the key ingredient for employment in the future of food.