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Labor Shortages meet Robbie the Robot!

As North America enters the fourth wave of the pandemic, we are seeing just how much damage it caused to our labor workforce and our supply chains. These are two things that most of us take for granted. In the average person’s mind, there are always lots of people willing to work, and the shelves should never be barren. Nothing in that last sentence can be farther from reality.

Massive layoffs during the 18 months of pandemic lockdown may have been what businesses needed to do to survive, but now it leaves them short-staffed. Employees who were laid off were forced to make some hard employment choices. Some took advantage of government-funded retraining and back-to-work programs, while others simply found new jobs to continue to put food on the table. Now that the service industry is bouncing back there is an extreme shortage of workers rushing back to their old jobs. Hence, the labor shortage that we are currently facing.

Anyone in business knows that being short-staffed can lead to negative customer feedback as overworked employees struggle to provide quality service to all customers. Unhappy customers mean customers who don’t return, and that impacts every business’s bottom line. So, what would a potential solution be to our current labor shortage be?

One suggestion was to raise the minimum wage to attract more workers to service industry jobs. There are multiple issues with this suggestion.

One, employers may not be able to afford a huge increase in the minimum wage for their employees as they are still recovering from the massive economic hit that almost every business had to absorb during the heat of the pandemic.

A restaurant may not be able to increase the minimum wage of a server because the pandemic has caused the business to become cash-poor and without the liquidity to initially handle the increase. If they raise the minimum wage too fast the restaurant may have to declare bankruptcy.

Another issue that employers face with increasing the minimum wage is that they may attract more unskilled labor rather than returning skilled labor. This results in restaurants having to hire workers who have limited knowledge of the service industry, and that results in the investment of more training to bring these workers up to speed. Management then has to invest more time and money in training new employees rather than investing time and money into growing the business. At this moment in time, everyone in the service industry is struggling to come up with a good solution.

One solution is implementing the automation of routine tasks via robots. As I wrote that last sentence, I immediately had an Arnold Schwarzenegger, Terminator robot image flash in my head as the robots take over. We already use robots and AI-enabled software in many areas of our life, why not use them in the service industry to improve customer service and satisfaction?

That takes us to Victoria, BC, Canada, and a restaurant well known in the city for its delicious Indian food. Mantra ( ) is facing the same challenges as many other restaurants- they can’t find enough staff to accommodate all their customers. The restaurant owner decided that they needed to look into how to leverage technology to solve their labor shortages.

That leads us to introduce Robbie the Robot. Now when I first saw the newscast that introduced Robbie the Robot all I could think of was that it looked like a Roomba vacuum cleaning robot on steroids. When I took a moment to examine the programming of the robot, I think that I was on the right track to understanding how the technology could be extremely useful and not just a marketing gimmick.

The robot is programmed to automate the process of having a server pick up dishes from customers and return them to the kitchen for washing.

The news segment stated that a study conducted at a restaurant using a robot-like Robbie to clear dishes made around 500 trips per day to and from the kitchen. That gave staff a better ability to be able to provide the outstanding service to their customers that they have always been known for.

Robbie is also being used at Mantra to deliver food to customers’ tables and to greet customers. I personally think that it is a great idea to use the robot as an effective marketing tool to fill seats in their restaurant. Who among us would not take a picture of being served by Robbie and post it on Instagram?

Except from the article in the Vancouver Sun about robots in the service industry:  (Link: Robbie the robot is at your service at two Vancouver Isle restaurants | Vancouver Sun )

“At Mantra, 1015 Fort St., owner Dharmendar Sohal, said he bought the robot because the restaurant is short-staffed. “This is a good option for us. … It’s a good helping hand.”

Customers are happy when they see Robbie the robot and enjoy interacting with it, especially youngsters, he said. When children pet the robot, it smiles, its eyes move and it meows.

Sohal will likely get a second robot for Mantra’s other location at 3480 Tillicum Rd Victoria, BC Canada.”

The use of technology to overcome the current labor shortage in the service industry makes sense to me. It’s not like the technology is not out there and in use in Smart Buildings and many factory automation systems. I think that this use of technology is an awesome thing!

This use of robots to automate routine tasks in the service industry will no doubt have its opponents. There is always the argument to be made about “What happens to the human workers that the robots are replacing?” In this case, the robots are replacing workers who are not available, so they are not “stealing” anyone’s jobs. What they are doing is giving restaurant staff the ability to have the time and energy to invest in expanding their customer base and continue to contribute to the local economy. That in turn gives local governments the funds to be able to continue to improve infrastructure and community services. That is a great thing for everyone as we climb out of the pandemic.

I am enjoying the innovations that are emerging out of the pandemic. So many fantastic developments enable people in our societies to do more, learn more, and go further than before. Smart Technologies are here to stay and I am excited to see where robots will appear next to help businesses to recover from the pandemic.

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