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Study says food-service, hospitality jobs susceptible to automation

In this Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016, file photo, McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook demonstrates an order kiosk, with cashier Esmirna DeLeon, during a presentation at a McDonald's restaurant in New York's Tribeca neighborhood. Jobs in the accommodation and food-services industry are most vulnerable to automation, according to a new study released this week, as fast-food chains across the country embrace self-ordering technology.

Richard Drew/AP

Jobs in the accommodation and food-services industry are most vulnerable to automation, according to a new study released this week, as fast-food chains across the country embrace self-ordering technology.

Although the C.D. Howe Institute study found that Canada's labour market is concentrated in industries that have a low probability of being taken over by robots, the report said that 72 per cent of employment in the accommodation and food-services industry was "highly susceptible" to automation.

"They unfortunately are at high risk," said Rosalie Wyonch, co-author of the study and a policy analyst with C.D. Howe. "We have already seen implementation of the fast-food ordering kiosks. It's not only feasible that they might be automated, but we are already seeing that gradually happening."

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McDonald's, Starbucks and other restaurants allow customers to order and pay for their purchases without talking to store staff. San Francisco-based Eatsa does not have a single server in its automated vegetarian restaurants in the United States.

The C.D. Howe study builds on other Canadian research that shows the accommodation and food-services industry at risk of being automatized.

But the study also looked at skills that are "difficult to computerize" as barriers to automation, such as leadership, flexibility, initiative and being aware of people's reactions.

Because of these skills, other jobs in the restaurant industry such as bartenders and wait staff are less at risk. "There's lots of tasks that you can automate but since a large portion of their jobs is interacting with people, they are pretty safe. They will just have less of the boring repetitive tasks to do," Ms. Wyonch said.

Other Canadian research from the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship found that hosts, servers, food-counter attendants and kitchen helpers had the highest likelihood of being replaced by automation, followed by cooks, bartenders and food-service supervisors.

"The most routine-oriented types of jobs were the ones that were the most at risk of automation," said Sean Mullin, executive director with the Brookfield Institute.

McDonald's has self-ordering kiosks in more than 900 restaurants in Canada. Starbucks has a mobile app that allows customers to order and pay for their purchases in about 1,000 coffee shops across the country.

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Burger King and Tim Hortons plan to launch their version of an order-and-pay app later this year.

At Eatsa, the only Eatsa-employed human you will find in the restaurant is a greeter near the front door. The ordering and paying is done on an in-store iPad or your phone. Then, about a minute later, your custom-made meal is ready for pick-up in a self-serve area.

Eatsa co-founder Scott Drummond would not disclose the number of staff working in a restaurant or provide detail on how much of the kitchen was automatized. But he said: "Of course we have people working in the back."

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Economics Reporter

Rachelle Younglai is The Globe and Mail's economics reporter. More

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