In a Today show interview with Ann Curry, U.S. President Barack Obama talked about one of the reasons he thought employment numbers have been slow to rebound: self-service automation. Reactions to his comments from those that monitor and are involved in the self-service and retail industries are varied.
In the interview, President Obama said, "There are some structural issues with our economy where a lot of businesses have learned to become much more efficient with a lot fewer workers. You see it when you go to a bank and you use an ATM, you don't go to a bank teller, or you go to the airport and you're using a kiosk instead of checking in at the gate. All these things have created changes in the economy, and what we have to do, and that's what this job council is all about ... is identifying where the jobs for the future are going to be."
According to the Washington Examiner's Philip Klein, ATM Industry Association CEO Mike Lee sent in an email response that said, in part, that "President Obama should never use ATMs as an example of how technology replaces human labor because ATMs today play a critical role in providing extensive employment in the ATM and cash-in-transit industries."
Industry experts are offering their reactions to President Obama's remarks, with some saying his comments were taken out of context by the public.
"I don't think he was slighting the self-service industry in any way," said Mike Wittenstein, a customer experience consultant specializing in branding and customer service. "I think he was using it as an example of what areas businesses need to think about when training and placing their people. He was using ATMs and kiosks as an example that people can understand."
Wittenstein said he thinks there's much ado about nothing regarding the comments because people are only choosing to listen to a select portion of his comments rather than his entire argument.
"The real focus was on where to direct this new jobs program, so we're training people in time for these new jobs that are very different from the ones we used to have. It's not as simple as replacing tellers with ATMs. That's not what the world needs. We're way too complicated for that," Wittenstein said. "I think his point was that people need to be trained and prepared for the right professions, not the ones that aren't needed."
The real economic value is being created by retailers, merchants and service providers of all kinds who are creating and blending traditional service delivery formats with new online-enabled services, of which self-service is simply a big category, according to Wittenstein.
Not a new concept: Technology replaces some jobs
Francie Mendelsohn, president of Summit Research and Associates, an international consulting firm devoted to kiosks, said President Obama's comments could have been directed at any industry utilizing more or new technology.
"When I've talked about why people deploy kiosks, it's politically incorrect to say that they deploy them to eliminate jobs, but that is why they are doing it," Mendelsohn said. "And what he [Obama] was specifically talking about was the airline check-in kiosks, which were implemented almost 10 years ago after Sept. 11."
Mendelsohn pointed out that even though the concept of airport check-in kiosks had been around before Sept. 11, the amount of layoffs caused by the public's concern regarding flying at that time gave the industry momentum and saved the airlines money.
"It was a cost-saving effort, more than anything, to provide functionality without having to employ so many human beings, and yet, when you ask people, they always give other reasons. He [Obama] was basically stating the obvious," Mendelsohn said.
She said that she believed that kiosk deployment has certainly created some unemployment, but fingers can't be pointed only to the self-service industry. She cited newspapers and the U.S. Postal Service as examples of where new technology eliminates certain jobs previously held by human beings.
"It does mean some traditional jobs go away. With the economy the way it is, I think it's sort of casting about and looking for something to focus on. He could have just as easily left kiosks out and said smartphones are doing the same thing. It's technology. In time, you will see less and less people going to the kiosks to print boarding passes," Mendelsohn said.
DSA executive director's response
"There are two points I'd like to make," said David Drain, Digital Screenmedia Association (DSA) executive director. "One, self-service has freed employees from menial, repetitive tasks and allowed them to spend time on customer-related issues. Second, while some companies may have reduced labor from self-service, it has created jobs for those designing, building and supplying kiosks.
"So the president's comments sound like something from the hip that does not factor in all the benefits of the technology to consumers and companies," Drain concluded.