Study: Retail full of bad jobs

From NY Times:

Retail workers in New York City earn a median of $9.50 an hour, most are part-time or temporary, and just 3 in 10 receive health insurance through their jobs, according to a new study of the city’s larger retailers.

The study, based on interviews with nonunion workers and released on Monday, largely found poverty wages and highly unstable schedules for the city’s retail employees, with less than a fifth having a set schedule each work week. The study said many workers had a hard time planning for, say, child care or classes because more than half learned their schedules a week or less before a work week would begin.

I studied retail work for a number of years, immediately preceding the big economic downturn in 2008. Included in the research was a set of interviews with retail workers. A number of patterns emerged in these interviews, and though it wasn’t exactly what I was studying, few had anything positive to reveal about retail work. I wasn’t really studying whether retail was a good or bad job, so I cautiously say the following. I found not that the work was bad, per se, but that retail workers themselves had little respect for what they did, reporting little pride in their jobs, a fact that shouldn’t be that surprising, I guess, because of the low pay and everything the NY Times article discusses.* But what really interested me was the lack of respect in relation to the structure of the job, which I found revolved around two main duties: helping prevent theft by standing upright, and raising the prospect of the store credit card to customers when they purchased items. Many retail workers reported that failing to push the card on even one customer would bring big trouble with their bosses.  As they described it, failing to mention the store card was a bigger deal than showing up late, calling in sick, etc. The credit cards were that central. Most retail workers I talked to had nothing good to say about these two main parts of their job.

This lack of respect for the central duties of their jobs, I think, has implications for the low wages. The workers I talked to acknowledged that the pay wasn’t good, but they seemed resigned to it nonetheless. The job, in the eyes of the workers, didn’t necessarily deserve more; it was not a ‘skilled’ job.

In the end, that was my biggest criticism of retail work. Not the pay, or the conditions, or the lack of health insurance, which others focus on, for good reason. To me, the big problem facing the retail workers I talked to is that while at work did not see themselves gaining valuable human capital. The experience for those I talked to was hollow: they were not honing skills; were not challenging themselves; they didn’t feel truly productive, etc. Retail work was not expanding the personal intellectual capital of these workers in the way many information-age jobs do for the employee. Perhaps the retail workers I talked to weren’t engaging themselves, and failed to take capitalize on the experience they were having. Either way, of all the jobs I’ve had the chance to observe, the modern retail job has always since struck me for the way its own practitioners define it as ‘skill-less.’ **

*The most prevalent exceptions (i.e., those retail workers who did profess respect for their jobs) were often employed in specialty stores, in cases in which the employee identified with the specialty (e.g. a sports fan working in a used sports equipment store, or a green-advocate worker in a grocery co-op selling organic food, or an avid shopper working in a clothing store, etc).

**It doesn’t have to be this way. It could be true, were retail work to more typically revolve around the development of a  skill (say, the skill of selling) rather than merely around preventing theft and mentioning credit cards, the value of the job to its workers in terms of the capital it provided would qualitatively increase. For certainly, selling is a skill still sought by somebody.

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