When an entire category of jobs goes away, there’s a ripple effect felt across the economy. For example, during the Great Recession, 2.1 million manufacturing jobs and nearly two million construction jobs were eliminated. This job loss rippled through towns where factories used to be the engine that drove the economy, and it rippled out to the developments where construction workers used to go to work and then come home.
Wholesale job elimination is now happening with retail. There are an estimated 4.5 million retail associate jobs, but the slew of retailer bankruptcies this year—Gymboree filed this week—and retail store shutterings will cut into that. Additionally, robots are coming for as many as six million retail jobs and e-commerce will likely eliminate another 30 to 50 percent of retail jobs.
As Diane Stafford of the Kansas City Star put it, “Millions of retail jobs—as we now know them—are going the way of gas station attendants. Just as ATMs replaced many bank tellers, automated check-out stations are supplanting retail clerks.”
So what? A lot has been made of “mancessions”—witness the tide of stories about the crises of masculinity men suffered when their mining, manufacturing and construction jobs went away. But department stores, where approximately 60 percent of the workforce is female, have lost half a million jobs since 2001—18 times the number of mining jobs that disappeared in the same period.
Why we should care about the disappearance of mining and manufacturing jobs often comes down to two things: well-paying jobs for people without college educations went away, and the industry is pulling out of a town often left with nothing. However, department stores used to anchor shopping malls. Local stores used to anchor downtown areas. When a retail outlet closes, the jobs lost may not have paid as well as, say, a miner’s job. But those jobs had flexible hours, and the importance of that kind of employment should not be overlooked.
The U.S. is over-retailed (remember this column?) and there are massive cultural shifts rocking retail—everything from e-commerce grabbing a larger percentage of consumer dollars to younger adults just not being that into shopping. These factors will lead to a loss of jobs—most of them women’s.
Who cares? All those economists doing a slow-motion freakout over U.S. women’s declining workforce participation, because losing jobs in the predominantly female clothing-retail and department-store sector is not going to help that particular trend. Communities that will be reeling from losing the revenue that a shopping mall brought in will be further affected by a smaller workforce that pay less in taxes. Families will miss the money Mom used to bring in.
Women will be looking for jobs that value the same skills retail jobs did: an ability to put up with what could charitably be called life’s rich pageant, an attention to detail, effective communications skills, and time management in busy and high-stress periods. The question is where those jobs will be, what they’ll pay, and whether prospective future employers will be able to see how skills from one industry transfer to another.
One possible bright spot: e-commerce. Economist Michael Mandel estimates that e-commerce has created 355,000 new jobs, many of which pay better than retail sale associate positions do and provide workers the opportunity to do more skilled labor, thereby boosting future earnings and employability. I say possible because a lot of the job growth in e-commerce has been in male-dominated transportation and warehouse jobs at fulfillment centers. We don’t know yet if women will be willing or able to crack these better-paying fields. And unlike retail outlets, which are all over the country, fulfillment centers for e-commerce are centered in only a few places in the U.S. Hearing about how warehousing job wages grow at twice the national rate does nothing for a laid-off retail worker who’s nowhere near one of those fulfillment centers.
Thousands upon thousands of retail jobs that will be lost this year all over the country. Consider how widespread the effects will be and ask whether the same people who have been wringing their hands over the men who lost their mining jobs should be equally distressed when eighteen times the workforce is also going to be without work.
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