NEW YORK — Getting a job at a store or fast-food restaurant — often a way into the economy for an unskilled worker — used to be as simple as walking up and down the mall and applying. Now, with store chains closing and laying off thousands of workers, that path is more complicated. The stores that remain financially healthy are actually raising wages in a tight labor market. But they’re seeking a new type of worker — one who has a lot more skills up front.
Asia Thomas, 44, was able to get a job at wholesale club B.J.’s for $12 an hour — but that was only after signing up for computer lessons and taking a class in retail basics like how to track inventory and handle issues like returns. That led her to another opportunity at a casino.
EMPLOYERS SEEKING MORE SKILLS
Across all entry-level retail jobs, the number of skills being demanded rose from 2010 to 2016, according to an analysis done for The Associated Press by Burning Glass Technologies, which scours 25 million job postings.
Burning Glass found a greater emphasis on customer service and communications skills for cashier, stock clerk and sales floor support jobs. And for many other entry-level jobs, employers want even more skills, like the ability to use customer relations software like Salesforce. Even forklift operators are being asked to be proficient in inventory management software.
This has major consequences for workers without college degrees or vocational training trying to get an economic foothold. A decade ago, workers, especially young ones, could start as cashiers and move up to become store managers or even higher. But now, it’s harder to even get in the door.
“The bottom may be coming out of the career ladder,” said Burning Glass CEO Matt Sigelman.
Experts say those who might otherwise have started out at working at a store may head instead to cleaning, dishwashing or health aide jobs. The number of jobs in those fields is expected to grow far more than in retail. While these jobs may pay about the same as retail, they can be more demanding physically and provide less opportunity to move up.
“This phenomenon is creating more pressure on incomes at the lower end of the middle class and will push people down closer to and even below the poverty line,” said Fred Crawford, senior vice chairman of consulting firm AlixPartners. “It will exacerbate the growing gap between the haves and have-nots.”
FRONT-LINE WORKERS MUST DO MORE
These changes are being driven by companies’ use of large amounts of data not available a generation ago. Supermarkets, for instance, use loyalty programs to better track customers’ shopping habits. Clothing chains are now quickly reacting to the latest fashion trends, adjusting the merchandise on store shelves within days.
That means front-line workers must do more.
Take cashiers. Employers asked for five skills in 2016, up from three in 2010. The job often requires running sophisticated registers that track loyalty cards, digital coupons and real-time inventory.
“We are looking for workers who are not only friendly and passionate but people who are tech-savvy,” said Marisa Velez, store director of DSW Designer Warehouse in New York’s Union Square.
That’s a shift from just five years ago, when the technology a sales clerk at the serve-yourself shoes and accessories chain would use would involve a calculator or calling another store to check if they have an item.
At DSW, Phoebe Li swiftly navigates the aisles stacked with boxes of shoes, seeing if customers need help while she scans an iPad to check on online inventory. The tablets DSW uses will soon be able to ring up a sale as well. “If I see someone bending down looking for a size, I ask them, “How is everything?'” said Li, 24, who has worked at DSW part-time since February.
“Customers are coming in with limited time,” Velez said. “They’re rushing. They want what they are looking for. We’re able to expedite that through the app, through the iPad and making sure we are respecting their time while still capturing the sale.”
Online home goods retailer Wayfair is increasingly looking for customer service and warehouse workers with problem-solving skills. Its employees help customers design a room, or they figure out how to pack a truck without damaging fragile items. So it’s now recruiting gamers at places like Comic Con for those roles, said Liz Graham, who oversees customer service and sales.
Nearly a third of all first jobs in the U.S. are in retail. But 62 percent of service-sector workers, which includes jobs like cashiers and store sales assistants, have limited literacy skills and 74 percent have limited math abilities, according to the National Skills Coalition, funded by Walmart Inc.’s charitable arm.
Chains like Target and Walmart are increasing training on the job. And the nonprofit arm of the industry’s trade and lobbying group, the National Retail Federation, launched a training and credential program for entry-level workers last year, joining with nonprofit groups like Goodwill to teach classes. But that may not be enough to fill the skill gap. There were more than 700,000 current job openings in retail in March, according to government data.
TRAINING PROGRAMS MAKE A DIFFERENCE
The retail industry “relied on a largely unskilled entry labor force. Now, it’s leaning more toward skilled people and competing with other sectors” like technology, said economist Frank Badillo, founder and director of research at MacroSavvy.
The training programs are making difference. Nadine Vixama would have never had a shot without them. Vixama, 42, emigrated from Haiti eight years ago and worked in a money payment business and then at a dry cleaners. But she wanted something that was more about customer service.
She did snag a job at Whole Foods in Cambridge, Massachusetts, first as a bagger and now as a cashier, making a little more than $11 an hour. But that was after taking English classes and the store basics program developed by the NRF.
“I’ve learned to treat customers in a better way … how to keep pace with them,” Vixama said. At another class offered by a workplace group, she learned about spreadsheet programs like Excel and studied basic accounting.
Vixama just finished the second class, and shadowed a manager at CVS as part of that training. She’s considering an entry-level job at a drugstore and mulling her options.
“I don’t want to stay like this,” she said. “I want to have better growth opportunities.”