Could automation be the answer to staffing shortages?

·3 min read
Amir Rahim, owner of Grounded Kitchen, stands in front of the automated food lockers at his business where customers can pick up their meals after ordering online.  (Submitted by Amir Rahim - image credit)
Amir Rahim, owner of Grounded Kitchen, stands in front of the automated food lockers at his business where customers can pick up their meals after ordering online. (Submitted by Amir Rahim - image credit)

When Amir Rahim was planning to open a second location of his Ottawa restaurant and coffee shop Grounded Kitchen, he decided to finally take the plunge on an idea he'd had for a while: incorporating automation.

Rahim said he sees automation as a way to address staff shortages that have been plaguing the food service industry for years, and have only been heightened since the pandemic.

"Anything that can be automated without compromising quality, service and personality, I think we should look at. We're in a day and age where automating certain things are accessible and doable," he said, adding it cost him between $10,000 and $20,000.

Now, ordering and picking up meals at Grounded Kitchen on Carling Avenue can all be done with the click of a few buttons.

First, customers order their meal or drink online and receive a text once staff have prepared it. Then they pick up their order from an automated food locker located inside the restaurant, sit down and enjoy.

Submitted by Amir Rahim
Submitted by Amir Rahim

The system is only a few months old, but Rahim said he sees it as a solution other businesses can also implement to help address staff shortages and also improve the customer's experience.

So far, Rahim said response from customers has been positive, although he recognizes that some people might still have reservations.

"I think a lot of consumers think if you automate, you're going to take away jobs. Well, that depends on whether people want the job or not," he said, adding not a lot of people want cashier and barista jobs anymore.

A solution for some, experts say

"Not all type of business can rely on automation," said Jasmin Guénette, vice-president of national affairs with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB).

But for those who can, Guénette said it can be a really good way to deal with the lack of staff, and give the business owner more time and opportunity to do long-term planning.

According to the CFIB, 77 per cent of small businesses across Canada are affected by labour shortages, with hospitality, construction and transportation industries being hit the hardest.

Submitted by Jasmin Guénette
Submitted by Jasmin Guénette

Automation is one of the most successful solutions to address labour shortages, Guénette said, alongside offering flexible working hours and streamlining immigration and temporary foreign worker applications.

Guénette said the CFIB is also calling on the government to incentivize businesses through programs and tax credits to invest in automation.

"Automation doesn't mean necessarily investing in a very expensive piece of equipment or machinery. It can also be for businesses, [such as] a new software," he said.

A 'necessary thing' amid labour shortages 

Automation has been a part of the workforce for the past several decades, said Armine Yalnizyan, an economist and Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers.

"When restaurants start using it, it actually frees up worker time and that's a really good thing because we're hitting historic highs in unfilled job vacancies in that sector," she said.

Those vacancies will likely remain for the next 10 or 20 years because of demographic changes in the current labour market, Yalnizyan added.

Christopher Katsarov/The Atkinson Foundation
Christopher Katsarov/The Atkinson Foundation

But the rise of technology and automation is now starting to affect a whole new group of workers, she said.

"It used to be a blue collar thing or even an agricultural thing, and now it's increasingly reaching into less labour intensive and more mental intensive jobs," she said. This includes translation, accounting, financial trading and even software development.

Yalnizyan said it's still too early to tell if these changes are a good thing, but she said they are a "necessary thing" in an era of labour shortages.

"There is no way automation is an uncategorical blessing or terrible thing. It depends on who's using it and how it's being used," she said.