US Businesses Turn to Automation Amid Labor Shortage
The shift to software, machines, and contactless methods was already underway in certain segments pre-pandemic, and the health crisis simply spurred on the process.
After September marked the end of extra pandemic-induced unemployment benefits, workers didn’t flood the labor force as expected. According to the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary released on Oct. 12, by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 10.4 million job openings at the end of August, with 6.3 million hires. The lag in workers highlights an ongoing challenge for businesses across the country: as businesses reopen, some industries are struggling to find and keep workers.
A lack of applicants, however, isn’t always negative for companies and profits. The shift to software, machines, and contactless methods was already underway in certain segments pre-pandemic, and the health crisis simply spurred on the process.
“Prior to the pandemic, we had over 120 employees,” Bret Bonnet, co-founder, and president of Quality Logo Products, a Chicago-based company that prints logos on merchandise such as t-shirts, water bottles, and stress bottles, told The Epoch Times.
Many of these positions were tasks that could have been automated, but the company was growing quickly and didn’t have the bandwidth to pursue changes to certain processes. “Our primary focus was on growth, and we simply plugged any holes or inefficiencies that popped up along the way with human capital,” Bonnet said.
The onset of the pandemic created a slowdown and with it, enough time for reassessment.
“During the height of the pandemic, we experienced a sizable decrease in business,” Bonnet said. “We used this opportunity to program and code many of these previous manual and human-controlled activities.”
Now 18 months later, the company employs 83 workers and is managing a workload that is similar in size to 2019.
“Thanks to additional automations, we anticipate additional reductions by the end of the year that could get our overall headcount below 50,” he said.
For other firms, having fewer staff on site has led to a search for new efficiencies.
“On our website, we employ a chat feature,” Isaiah Henry, the CEO of Seabreeze, a California-based property management company that manages over 90,000 commercial and residential properties, told The Epoch Times.
“While we do offer a live chat, if a customer wants to reach us outside of business hours, they can fill out a simple form and someone will get back to them as soon as possible.”
The asynchronous setup enables the company to avoid having staff available 24/7 to respond to chat messages.
Seabreeze is also using improved response systems, including a form on the website that visitors can fill out to request a proposal.
“One of our team members will receive this form, input their data, and respond to the potential customer in a timely manner,” Henry said. “If we happen to be short staffed that day, we’re not having someone wait on hold if they call us.”
New Shopping Model
In some instances, the pandemic has opened the way to reimagine the entire customer journey. The fluctuations of the previous year and a half proved to be a time to build a new business model for Alexa Allamano, owner of the jewelry store Foamy Wader, which has a brick-and-mortar location in Whidbey Island, Washington state.
In late 2020, “in response to COVID restrictions, I set up my window display with scannable QR codes,” Allamano told The Epoch Times.
The setup presented a true “window shopping” experience: passersby could use their smartphone camera to scan the QR code next to an item in the window and be led to that exact item on the Foamy Wader website, where they could purchase it. Once ordered, the jewelry and other merchandise could be sent to the customer or be made ready for pick up at the store.
“I utilize my storefront window display to create an alfresco shopping space right from the sidewalk,” Allamano said.
Shoppers can make purchases at any time, and Allamano often sees a spike in orders around the dinner hour, as the store is located near a restaurant.
“Business has returned to pre-pandemic levels while I am available in-store by appointment only.”
Customers have been so satisfied with the QR code window shopping concept that Allamano wrote a guidebook (available at scantoshopsolution.com) for retailers who want to incorporate the method. She has also guest taught webinars on the subject.
“It’s been a game changer for my business,” she said. “I don’t have to spend time waiting for people to come through the door. I have the flexibility to work at times that best suit the needs of my family and leave new customer acquisition to the windows.”
Across industries, the staffing shortages could be a temporary pain, as firms further embrace automation and its benefits.
“I think many businesses are going to accelerate their plans to program out and eliminate many well-paying positions in the next five or six years,” Bonnet said. “If we don’t begin to re-tool and re-train our workforce, we’re going to be in for a world of hurt.”
By Rachel Hartman
Rachel Hartman is a freelance writer with a background in business and finance. Her work has appeared in national and international publications for more than 10 years. She resides in Miami and travels frequently.
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