Illustration by Cierra Pedro

The Importance of People

The increasing automation of work in hospitality and beyond doesn’t offer much of a positive outlook for the future of the labor force.

Working at a university, the future of the labor force is never far from my mind. Are my students, who are investing a great deal in their educations, going to have jobs when they graduate? With many UNLV students hoping to work in the hospitality industry, the increasing automation of work in that field doesn’t leave me feeling positive. As we move toward what seems to be an inevitably less people-focused business, it’s worth taking a minute to consider what we are sacrificing.

It’s hard to argue against the financial benefits that a robot bartender or check-in kiosk can have over a human employee. In many cases, automation can lead to a better customer experience. If you don’t believe me, tell me the last time you cashed a check with a teller in a bank? The development of direct deposit and ATMs has made lives much easier for a lot of us, but probably hasn’t helped launch many careers for bank tellers.

This is on my mind right now particularly because I’m in the process of editing a collection of oral history interviews done with slot managers. The participants, some of whom started in casinos as far back as the early 1970s, have seen their careers profoundly shaped by changes in technology, often for the better. Starting in, let’s say, 1975, you could be doing many things with slot machines: fixing them when they break; making sure they remain filled with coins, paying hand-pays; selling change; lugging coins from machines to hard count; weighing and counting coins in hard count; marketing to slot players; and so on.

Today, someone wanting an entry-level slots job has considerably less choice. It often comes down to working as a slot tech, slot analyst or service associate. This is reflected in the interviews, which were done with current and retired slot managers with experience in Las Vegas and around the world. Most of those who started in casinos before the late 1990s came into their jobs, not always by accident, but often without much deliberation. Many needed a job and heard that a casino was hiring, so they applied, often knowing little or nothing about casinos or slot machines. As can be attested by their long careers, they had a great deal to offer, even if they lacked formal training.

It’s worth remembering that there wasn’t much formal training available for prospective slot operations managers for much of the period. Slots were gaining in importance as the machines contributed more to the bottom line of casinos. The machines themselves evolved from relatively straightforward electro-mechanical devices to software-driven computer terminals with simplified player interfaces and sophisticated accounting layers.

Slot machines were evolving in a predictable way, with bigger jackpots and more choices for players. Then, in a period of five to 10 years starting in the mid-1990s, the entire business flipped. First, bill validators reduced the need for manual changemaking. Then, ticket in/ticket out or cashless systems eliminated coins from the equation entirely. The result was more convenience for players and far fewer jobs, particularly for people without a deep skill set but with a real desire to work.

The disappearance of those jobs had a positive effect on casino finances and the customer experience, but led to a net loss for Las Vegas. How? Because it meant fewer chances for those with limited technical skills to get a middle-class income. Those types of jobs, on the casino floor, in housekeeping, as valets, made Las Vegas what the late historian Hal Rothman called “the Last Detroit,” postindustrial America’s final hope at upward mobility.

Those who started working in slot management after the late 1990s, in contrast to their older colleagues, had years of training before walking on the casino floor for the first time. Many of them earned hospitality management degrees from UNLV, and many were identified early on as go-getters with potential, being accepted into internal advancement programs such as Mirage Resorts’ MAP program. UNLV and internal programs like theirs have produced talented managers who have in turn nurtured newcomers, and such programs are a good thing. But in shrinking the funnel of potential managers by eliminating a good share of casual entry-level jobs, casinos lose access to many passionate, talented people who, though they haven’t had the chance to earn advanced degrees, might be excellent leaders.

That is, of course, bad news for the people who once would have taken those jobs, but hopefully their ambition will help them excel in other fields. It is also, however, unfortunate for casinos, which are losing potential leaders with a diversity of experience and upbringing that cannot be taught, no matter how good the program. That might be heresy for a university employee to say, but it’s true. In the time I’ve been in and around casinos, I worked for, worked with, been mentored by, gotten to know and simply observed a lot of people. Some of the most insightful and caring had college degrees, but many did not.

The gaming industry prides itself on its record of diversity, and it should not forget that diversity of experience can be just as essential as demographic diversity. In the rush to automate, those making decisions should give some thought about what might be lost, as well as what will be gained, by eliminating jobs.

Listening to the men and women I interviewed share their stories has been an enriching experience. It’s reminded me of how important something as seemingly inconsequential as people playing slot machines can be to a career, to a life. I hope that when someone follows up on this project many years from now, they will be able to talk to as deep and diverse a group of people as I have.