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Supercuts and the Future of (Too Many) Jobs

How a haircut made me wonder if we are worried about the wrong things when it comes automation, robots, and employment.

August 10, 2017
 
 

Last week I got my hair cut at Supercuts.  The wonderful old-fashioned barber shop that I always go to was closed for their annual vacation week, and I desperately needed a haircut for a big talk I was about to give.  So Supercuts it was.

The haircut that I got a Supercuts was fine.  The price was low, and the stylist was professional efficient.

The problem was the experience.  There was a big line of people wanting to their hair cut, and not enough stylists to do the cutting.  This was not due to a lack of barber chairs.  There were 10 chairs, but only half of those were staffed by stylists.  The walk-in wait to get a haircut was 1.5 hours.  Many people walked in, heard about the wait, and decided to wait until another day for a haircut.

When I asked my stylist about the lack of staffing, she told me that this was not an unusual situation.  She related that the store has trouble filling available positions, and then when qualified people are hired they will often quickly leave for other jobs.  Moreover, my stylist mentioned that a few people who were “on the schedule” to work had not shown up - and that this was a common occurrence.

Why doesn’t Supercuts simply raise wages to a level high enough to attract and retain more stylists?  The fixed costs of leasing and outfitting the store are high.  You’d think that the company would want to maximize productivity by having all of its stations in use.

Supercuts has determined that demand for the company’s services would decline if they raised the price of a haircut in order to afford higher wages for stylists.  That the increased productivity of its stores from having them fully staffed would be offset by the loss of business to low-cost competition.   Supercuts seems to be making the same calculus as the airlines - and many other businesses - that for some products or services that consumers are sensitive only to price.  That the quality of the service must only be above a minimum acceptable bar, and that anything that raises costs (and prices) will ultimately be bad for business.

Jobs like that of Supercuts will not be replaced by automation or outsourcing.  Hair cutting is one of those jobs that is always used as examples of work that can’t be outsourced.  A haircut is an in-person service.  The customer and the provider need to be in the same place.  A barber may be less expensive to employ in India or China, but I can’t go there to have my hair snipped.  A robot barber seems to be much further away than an autonomous car, as experiments in machines cutting hair have shown sub-optimal results.  

We have all this worry about how automation is going to take all the jobs.  That robots are going to replace us all.

This worry about a jobless future is contrasted with our daily reality of too few workers.

Every organization, company, and university that I know is understaffed.  Most employees are doing the work of 2 or 3.  The reason that workers are so stressed and frazzled is that there is not enough of them to do the work.

No employer seem to want to hire, as keeping payroll low offers a hedge against economic downturns.

My guess is that you are working in an environment of too few people to accomplish too much work.  We tend not to understand this mismatch as a systemic issue.  We see understaffing as a local challenge, specific to the circumstances of our employer or our industry.  But what if this is not true?

What if the understaffing that we all live through is a function of the interaction between today’s demographics, technologies, government policies, labor force composition, and competitive environment?  What if understaffing is baked into our economic and social order - and our lived experience as employees and customers - in a way that is more profound and meaningful than any robot-centric (automation ubiquitous) future?

The worry about technological unemployment, about automation substituting for jobs, has taken hold as a topic of discussion across higher education.  Talking about the future of driverless cars (and trucks), as well robot warehouse workers and drone delivered packages, makes for interesting conversation.  What we talk about less in higher ed is the shortage of people to fill the existing jobs that need to be done.

Rather than spending all of our time talking about a future of too few jobs, perhaps we should spend more time discussing our present of too few workers.

Is it possible that the employment crisis of the future will not be too few available jobs, but too many?

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