I was at a local store completing a transaction at one of the newer self check-out lanes. A young lady was assisting those who needed a bit of guidance as they utilized the recently installed machines.  

“There’s your future” I said with a smile, pointing at the machine in front of me.

She slowly shook her head. 

“There go some more jobs,” she replied.  “Always the little people’s jobs that get taken away.”

At first blush, it appeared that she may be right. Jobs for check-out clerks will surely be eliminated as these types of machines become more common. 

The incident reminded me of a statement made years ago by former President Barack Obama. At the time, he was discussing a poor jobs report and used banking as an example. 

“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,” he said. 

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Obama and the young lady both saw a missing human performing a task but failed to make a connection to the machines before them. 

Where did these machines come from?

They did not magically appear one day. They started as a conceptual idea. Someone at a corporation looked at a check-out lane said something like, “I wonder if we could make a machine that combines the price scanning technology with the technology to conduct monetary transactions?”

Once it was determined that such a machine could be produced, studies were conducted. What would such a machine cost? How much might someone pay for such a machine? 

These studies were completed, viability was determined and a machine was designed. This meant that every individual component of the machine was designed, prototyped and tested. A manufacturing process and a supply source was located for every individual component.

The components were assembled, and on and on.

People performed the tasks — people doing jobs. Someone delivered and installed that machine. Someone maintains it. Someone wrote the computer software on which it operates. Furthermore, behind the scenes, someone is designing the machine that will replace that one.   

And so it goes. Jobs disappear and new ones are created. I have noticed that while there are fewer check-out clerks in grocery stores, there are more people preparing meals and pre-cut vegetables, which have become more popular recently. 

Are check-out clerks and bank tellers jobs that may not exist in the future? Perhaps, and if so, they will have plenty of company.  

Contrary to what some may see on the surface, it could be a good thing. Think about it: should we as a civilization have forgone the use of electricity so candle makers could stay employed? 

How about refrigeration, which put quite a dent into the need for milkmen and ice delivery men? Pony Express riders were unemployed after only about a year thanks to the telegraph, yet few people think we should go back to horse riders delivering mail and messages across the country. 

Whatever happened to the coopers, the lamp lighters, the town criers or the leach collectors?

We move on. Bicycle manufacturers learned to produce motorcycles. Former carriage builders designed and produced automobiles. 

Advertising and newspaper people moved away from print and are learning to operate in electronic and social media.

We continue to change, and most agree we are better for it.

Bob Kowalczyk is a Manawa resident. He can be reached at bobcast@wolfnet.net.

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