Opinions mixed on Obama's kiosk remarks

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.


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User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • Lawrence Dvorchik
    Once again, President Obama has stuck his foot in his mouth, making statements that are poorly worded and without thought as to how they can be interpreted or misinterpreted. As with his earlier comments about the city of Las Vegas, he has made another comment that was not well thought out

    As a leader in the self-service industry for over 15 years, I choose to take his statements as a positive as to how far the use of self-service technology has come in the last 15 years, and how technology continues to play such an important role in out daily lives. Unfortunately, for such a wonderful public speaker, President Obama once again demonstrated an inability to communicate his message correctly.

    Self-service solutions were - and continue to be - deployed worldwide as a new generation of business process re-engineering. As a byproduct of the global technological growth, jobs are eliminated while new jobs are created. Organizations do not deploy self-service with the sole purpose of eliminating jobs - they deploy self-service to better their business operations and improve their connection and loyalty with their customers.
  • Iain McKendry
    Obama didn't stick his foot in his mouth, or swipe at the ATM/Self Service industry. If you and Mike Lee could put your political allegiances aside for one minute, and read the quote, you'll see that.
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