Movie tickets, machines, and the remaking of the American part-time job

By Richard Nieva , written on January 3, 2013

From The News Desk

Yesterday I came across a small stitch of news that wasn’t seismic by any means, so I shrugged and continued reading through my diet of news outlets. But today it’s striking me as an odd harbinger of things to come: Fandango, the movie ticket sales service, had a record breaking 2012, and ticket sales spiked by 57 percent. The number of tickets purchased through mobile devices increased by 171 percent from this time last year.

Big deal, right? A company has a good year, hooray for Fandango, etc. But it begs the question: If we're all going to be buying tickets online and with our phones, what happens to the teenagers with part-time jobs selling those tickets?

Box office attendees aren’t going away tomorrow. But if people continue to embrace services like stalwart Fandango, it’s likely many of these kinds of service jobs will be going the way of the soda jerk.

First off, sincere kudos is in order for Fandango. Its service has actually gotten better after its 2007 acquisition by Comcast -- a rare feat, especially by Comcast. While the uptick in usage is in part due to smart partnerships with Apple (as Siri's go-to movie service) and AOL's Moviefone, there has also been a clear shift in user behavior.

It’s not an entirely new shift; people have been using mobile phones in the last several years to do things we never thought they could do, like control their thermostat or deposit checks. And it’s not like people have never used automated systems to save time. At various events, Eventbrite registration let’s audience members walk on through passed the entrance tables, and it takes seconds to check in.

People have long argued the effects that machines will have on the human labor force. In the case of retail, we’ve been dealing with this for a while. Self-checkout at the supermarket decreases the need for checkers. Online and mobile check-in at the airport lightens the workload of those airline employees, especially when a flyer doesn’t have a bag to check. My most enjoyable job when I was younger was as an A/V geek in college, setting up computers and projectors in classrooms and during university functions. With the equipment becoming so consumer and user-friendly, I don’t know how big their staff is today, or how much they can justify it. At a more sophisticated level, even something as clunky as network virtualization in the enterprise displaces a data center worker.

But the commonality in each of those examples is that there are still humans involved in the process. There is one supermarket checker there to troubleshoot when a customer has problems. Of course the difference between this and Fandango is the promise of mobile. People know how to use a phone, and not a tricky kiosk -- which makes the need for a helper all the more necessary.

At the airport, airline workers still need to do the high-level things like check IDs. And last year when I interviewed Martin Casado, cofounder of network virtualization company Nicira (which was subsequently acquired by VMware), he told me the people doing the manual work on data center routers and switches would be freed up to do higher level things.

And believe me, we’ll still need the A/V geeks. They will outlast the cockroaches after the Armageddon. No user interface is that good.

So while there might be fewer workers, those that remain will hold more responsibility. They become de facto customer service experts or insurance clearance personnel. Of course, at a period when the country is focused on job growth, it’s tough to wait while we’re prepping a new kind of worker for primetime. Perhaps teens will move into other types of digital service jobs that haven't been invented yet.

Still, there’s always the human element that can't readily be replaced. Young people need jobs for experience. Even the most powerful CEO’s talk about their first part-time jobs, the ones that helped them build character. It's anyone's guess what those will be ten years from now.