McDonald’s robotic cooks fry job opportunities for low-skilled workers

Hamburger flipping as the last refuge of the unskilled worker might be going the way of the gas station attendant. The change underscores why your schools must prepare every one of your students for more intellectually demanding careers.

McDonald’s, the restaurant chain that has defined “fast food” for four decades, has announced plans to install new computerized and partially robotic kitchens in all its U.S. outlets by the end of next year.

Prototype kitchens tested in a handful of McDonald’s sites have included a computer-driven machine that dumps frozen french fries into a basket, which is dunked automatically into hot oil for cooking. The machine then shakes the fries and dumps them into bins for serving. Robot machines elsewhere prepare drinks.

“This is in keeping with the natural trend of things,” said David Pearce Snyder, editor of Futurist magazine. Snyder sees technology changing the landscape of the labor force‹and warns that schools will need to reflect the change as well.

“We’re automating out of existence the drudgery jobs, and replacing them with jobs that require learning and adapting,” Snyder said. “The blue-collar worker of the future is going to need more higher-order skills to make decisions.”

No more heat lamps

The innovations at McDonald’s are part of a program called “Made for You,” an effort to reduce operating costs and improve the quality of food and service. The machines allow McDonald’s restaurants to serve fresh, made-to-order food that would slow down the old kitchens too much.

Some McDonald’s franchises cook their burgers earlier in the day, then reheat them. Adding a couple of pickles or skipping the “special sauce” can mean waiting another 15 minutes. The new “Made for You” system addresses those problems in an attempt to lure more customers to the burger behemoth.

Gone will be the heat lamps, replaced by computer-run holding bins that regulate the temperature of cooked meat to keep it hot and juicy. By keeping track of the time meat was placed in each bin, store managers know to throw the food away if it hasn’t been consumed after 30 minutes, said McDonald’s.

Other innovations include a computer system to track what items have been selling lately and when the lunch or dinner rush is likely to begin. The computer alerts the staff to start making burgers in anticipation of the rush.

It all adds up to a more efficient process‹and one that Snyder refers to as “informating” the workplace.

“We’re going to see much more of these ‘expert systems’ in the future,” he said. “‘Expert systems’ enable even the lowest of the low-skilled workers to react, make decisions, and provide input based on what the computer is suggesting.”

Snyder said schools can prepare their students most effectively for the workplace of the future by emphasizing simulation-based learning, where students perform hands-on tasks that require decisions and higher-order thinking. Simulation software programs, similar to the popular computer game “Sim City,” soon might become the dominant tools for learning, he said.

“We’re getting rid of jobs that don’t encourage people to rise to their full potential,” Snyder said.

For schools, the challenge has become to prepare all of today’s students for a workplace of the future where the idea of “unskilled” labor is only a memory‹even at McDonald’s.


David Pearce Snyder

Dennis Pierce

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at