Across the country many cities are moving to a minimum wage of about $15. This has been met with both cheers and backlash. The cheers come from people glad our society wants to help people get closer to a living wage. The backlash comes from people who say that it hurts businesses and is not maintainable.
Either way, what we are seeing is a continued push to automation in service sector jobs. You can see examples of that everywhere from Chili’s (who put tablet computers for ordering at every table) to McDonald’s who is experimenting with self serve coffee kiosks in Chicago.
Here in Park City we don’t have to debate whether we should hike the minimum wage. The fair market has driven up wages for many “minimum wage” type jobs to between and $12 and $15. Yet, the outcome appears to be the same. If you’ve been in McDonald’s in Kimball Junction recently, you probably have noticed the self serve touch screen kiosk that takes orders. Likewise, when Smith’s expanded a few years back, what did they do? They dramatically expanded the number of self checkout stations. Likewise, when Whole Foods builds their new store (which is much bigger), it is likely they will take steps to minimize the extra number of workers required. Then if we look at the major player in town, Vail Resorts, they are good at what they do. It’s likely they will find a way to automate anything that won’t negatively impact the customer experience (if they haven’t already).
It’s true that this sort of automation will first flow to the chains, who can afford it. The Park City Pizzas of our community will come later. However, they’ll have to eventually automate in order to compete or they will disappear. That’s why the Papa John’s gives great discounts when ordering online. Every order that comes in online means fewer phone calls to be answered by a person.
The question I have is how will the impact both Park City area traffic and affordable housing needs. Fewer workers mean fewer people commuting in. The further question is whether that is a reduction of a handful people or hundreds of people across our community. Either way, it will mean less people on our roads.
Affordable housing is a little trickier by its nature. I still struggle with what is an “affordable house” in Park City. Rent controlled apartments are one thing but what’s an affordable house? Technically an “affordable” house is one that can be purchased by a family making the Area Median Income (AMI) of an area. Park City’s AMI is $80,000. So, an affordable house would max out at around $320K. There aren’t a lot of those around Park City, and it’s hard to see where huge growth in those properties comes from.
It makes me wonder, if somewhat like the previous article on preventing problems instead of solving them, if our government needs to help our community automate. I know that topic is taboo in many places because we don’t want to see our fellow community members lose jobs. However, if people are just driving into Park City from Salt Lake to get paid $14.50 at Panda Express, do we worry as much about making their job obsolete? Don’t get me wrong, I understand it is a slippery slope and many people that drive into our area every day are part of the fabric of our community. However, simple math says that fewer workers likely translates into fewer cars and less need for affordable housing.
Sure, we could try to get everyone on a bus and we’ll likely get a few to be part of the transportation solution. However, if we incentivized businesses to automate (which shouldn’t be too big of a stretch because it decreases their costs) and reduce the number of people on the roads, it’s one less person (or hundreds less people) we need to convince to ride a bus or go multi-modal.
Please don’t misconstrue this as a broad call to get rid of teachers, firemen, your local bartender, etc. However, if the city or county developed a plan to provide low cost financing (or other incentive) for automation, the local Del Taco may be able to take a few people off the road. Perhaps a few other businesses could do the same. Eventually perhaps we could have both strong economic growth and not increase the number of workers driving on our roads.
Or perhaps, it’s not worth it and we as a community want to maintain these types of jobs, even with some of the negatives that come with them.
That said, I think it at least makes sense to consider a push to automate. If we are at the point where we are willing to figure out how to make it PAINFUL for our citizens to drive and park around Park City (in order to incent people to get out of their cars), then I think automating some jobs may be a better part of the solution.