Erin Abell left a job in finance to volunteer for John McCain's presidential campaign in 2008. She had hoped to return to the industry after the election, but by then Wall Street was on life support, and Abell had to live off credit cards until joining a friend's startup. • So she started working part time at Banana Republic to help cut her debts. Yet Abell was paid less at age 30 than she made in a retail job in her early 20s. She also says she had to promote high-interest credit cards and sometimes work until 1 a.m. • "Management made it very clear they could replace you tomorrow," Abell says.
As the economic recovery gains steam, the retail industry is expected to be one of the strongest for job growth this decade. But the quality of jobs selling clothes, computers and other goods has declined in recent years to the point where few can be classified as careers.
Erratic part-time hours often make a second job impossible and complicate the work-life juggle. Pay has shrunk. And the recession created hordes of overqualified job seekers, leaving existing staff with little power to demand better conditions.
With unemployment still high at 8.8 percent, many people feel fortunate to land any job. But not all jobs contribute the same to economic growth. Employers may be hiring more, but they are hiring disproportionately in retail and other positions with low wages and few benefits.
High-paying fields accounted for 40 percent of the 8.8 million jobs lost from January 2008 to February 2010 but only 14 percent of jobs created in the year that followed. Lower-paying industries like retail constituted 23 percent of jobs lost but almost half of recent growth. This "could make it much harder for workers to find family-supporting jobs," says Annette Bernhardt of the National Employment Law Project, who analyzed the data.
Elizabeth Murphy, a recruiting manager for Crate & Barrel, says she's receiving three times as many applications as she did a year and a half ago. The increase reflects, in part, a surge in applications from unemployed real-estate agents, accountants and other professionals.
"In the past, college grads would say, 'I won't even talk to you if you're paying less than this,' " Murphy says.
Stores are under pressure to trim their expenses, and labor, the biggest expense after inventory, is one of the few costs they can control. In 2006, the median hourly wage for retail salespeople was $9.50, the government says. In 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available, that figure was $9.74 — a 4 percent drop after adjusting for inflation and more than $5 less than the U.S. median for all occupations. For full-time retail workers, the median annual wage was $20,510 — half made more, half less. That's well below the federal poverty line for a family of four.
Much of the retail industry's work force depends on the income for their livelihood, says James Parrott, economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute.
The sector's largest employer, Walmart, already accounts for 1 percent of all U.S. workers. Critics, though, say the company skimps on pay. Last year, Ohio state Rep. Robert Hagan, a Democrat, calculated that state taxpayers spend roughly $67 million a year on food stamps and Medicaid for Walmart employees.
Spokesman Bill Wertz says the store offers competitive wages and benefits and every day "helps people move off unemployment rolls."
Advances in technology have helped stores optimize workers' schedules, too, so they have more workers on duty during peak sales times without being overstaffed during lulls. But one consequence is inconsistent work schedules for the employees. And workers complain that computers don't weigh factors like seniority or a lengthy commute.
Sheena Dixon, 26, a former theft-prevention manager at a Target in New York, said her store "used scheduling as a weapon," shuffling hours so it was difficult to take a second job or make plans. If the store called on a day off and you declined to come in, your hours were slashed, she says.
Target spokeswoman Molly Snyder says scheduling was "thoughtfully crafted to provide flexibility for our team members."
Did you know?
Three of the six occupations expected to grow the most by 2018 are customer-service representatives, food-service workers and retail salespeople, according to government data. Retail is expected to create twice as many positions as software and computer-application engineering.