By now you've already heard it — the introduction of self-order restaurant kiosks is raising fears that kiosks are killing jobs. News media outlets and websites are perpetuating the story that restaurants want to replace workers with kiosks to protect their bottom lines.
What's to be done about it? Plenty.
If ever there were a time for the kiosk industry to speak with a collective voice, that time is now.
Let's start with a reality check.
There is a lot of talk about restaurants replacing workers with kiosks despite the fact the number of actual kiosk deployments barely earns a blip on the national radar. Deployments are on the rise, but they remain in the early stages despite several years of testing.
What's motivating the fear mongers is what "might" happen sometime in the future.
The national campaign to mandate $15-an-hour wages is undoubtedly causing restaurants to consider their options. But restaurants cannot simply deploy kiosks and expect to watch the profits roll in. Deployment requires extensive planning, a hefty upfront investment and new skills training.
The facts about restaurant kiosks
What have we learned from deployments to date? That most restaurant kiosks are serving to reallocate labor from the front to the back of the restaurant and in some cases, add jobs.
By allowing customers to be served faster and with greater order accuracy, kiosks are helping restaurants serve more customers, increasing the number of customers to serve, and requiring more employees.
Kiosks, like other types of automation, are improving customer service and creating new operating efficiencies. And for companies to use kiosks successfully, they need workers who possess new skills.
Minimum wage is a complex issue and it serves no one's interest (save maybe the labor unions') to oversimplify it.
The impact of kiosks on restaurant labor is not simple. Sweeping generalizations like "kiosks are killing jobs," and "kiosks won’t eliminate any positions" are both incorrect.
What should we do?
What's needed is an honest assessment about the impact kiosks have on the economy, including the need for better trained workers.
Workers need more than a good wage to be financially secure — they need new skills. Which means the kiosk industry and workers share a common interest.
The kiosk and restaurant industries are both caught in the crosshairs of a backlash caused by public misunderstanding about kiosks' impact on human labor. Both industries need to rise to the challenge to educate the public the world is changing. And mostly for the better.
The National Restaurant Association has announced support for President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for Secretary of Labor, CKE Restaurants CEO Andrew Pudzer, a man who has spoken in favor of restaurant automation.
Now the kiosk industry needs to do its part to educate the media and the public about what role it plays — in the restaurant industry as well as in the nation's economy. To the extent that kiosks are being blamed for destroying jobs, it is up to the kiosk industry to refute that false narrative.
Why it matters
The industry cannot afford to allow itself to be castigated as an uncaring behemoth that threatens peoples' well being. If the industry does not protect its reputation, businesses that could have much to gain from kiosks will be unwilling to be associated with kiosks out of concern for their own reputations.
Public relations is more important than ever. With social media and the internet giving people the means to voice their opinions immediately and have them forwarded automatically to new audiences, every industry serious about its future must embrace public relations.
Industry members need to recognize what's at stake. The task is to communicate to the public that technology is changing peoples' lives for the better and new skills are needed to enable these improvements to evolve.
"We in the technology space certainly could do a better job of making sure our voices are heard and that the truth about technology's impact on these industries gets out there," said Christopher Hall, managing director of the Interactive Customer Experience Association, whose membership includes both kiosk suppliers and users. "These interactive technologies are creating next-level customer experiences, and that should be the story we tell, instead of allowing them to be used as a political football."
A coordinated effort by kiosk industry members should begin a public education campaign. Young people in particular welcome technology and will be receptive to hearing the industry's message.
The Kiosk Industry Association could play a role in this effort. The association has posted several articles on its website on the issue.
"We support accurate reporting by the media which is fact-based," said Craig Keefner, association director. "These types of advocacy articles where self-order is cast, partly, as a consequence by employers, is inaccurate and inappropriate."
To the extent that kiosk manufacturers, developers, integrators and users are investing in training, the public should know about it.
The kiosk industry is a growing entity that is creating great opportunities for customers and employees alike. There is a lot of innovation taking place, and the industry's story needs to be heard.
/ Elliot Maras is the editor of KioskMarketplace.com and FoodTruckOperator.com.