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Op-Ed | The Shifting Gender Split of Retail Workers

The rise in e-commerce has resulted in dwindling demand for brick-and-mortar sales assistants, work typically dominated by women, and a rise in demand for warehouse and delivery work, largely populated by men.
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NEW YORK, United States — From 19th-century shop girls to 20th-century buyers, modern retailing has been a female-friendly work environment. Just look at the photos today's department stores use to illustrate their commitments to diversity. Women typically outnumber men at least two-to-one, a ratio that reflects reality. At Nordstrom, for example, 70 percent of all employees and 69 percent of managers are women.

So the “retail apocalypse” means fewer jobs for women. Retail trade employment barely budged over the past year, with an increase of less than 0.4 percent, or about 58,000 jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For general merchandise retailers, where women predominate, employment fell by about 50,000 jobs.

The collapse of traditional retailing reverses a much-heralded trend: Jobs that involve working with things are disappearing, while those that demand a winning personality — celebrated as “emotional intelligence” — are growing. Men lose while women win, especially at the bottom of the educational and income ladder.

“The labour market continues to shift away from traditionally male jobs toward traditionally female jobs,” Jed Kolko, the chief economist for job site Indeed, told USA Today last week. That’s a particular problem for less-educated men, half of whom are in occupations where at least four-fifths of the workers are male, compared to 20 percent of men with bachelor’s degrees. “Fast-growing male jobs that require lots of education don’t really help men without a college degree who have been in traditionally male jobs and for whom work is part of male identity,” Kolko wrote in a blog post.

That’s true but incomplete. Reports on economic changes tend to reflect two biases. They emphasise losers over winners, the seen over the unseen. And they reflect the personal and professional values of the educated, articulate people doing the reporting.

Contrary to the feminine triumphalism that declares traditionally male skills obsolete, the economy is full of surprises and cross-currents. In the retailing world, demand for people-pleasing sales clerks is down. Even shoppers who buy in person prefer to do their own research online and get in and out quickly, rather than deal with solicitous sales people.

Meanwhile, demand for merchandise-moving warehouse workers and, at least until self-driving trucks and drones show up, delivery drivers is rising. That’s good news for less-educated men.

In the past year, the number of Americans working transportation and warehouse jobs rose by 47,000, or 5.2 percent, to 945,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For production and nonsupervisory employees, the increase was even sharper, 6.4 percent. Men hold more than three-quarters of all transportation and warehouse jobs.

Like capital-intensive factories, warehouses with robot assistants make workers more productive and hence more valuable. In Amazon’s cutting-edge facilities, they complement human skills. “We like to think of it as a symphony of software, machine learning, computer algorithms, and people,” a spokeswoman told MIT Technology Review.

Wages, while low, are rising as retailers expand online offerings. Fulfillment centres tend to cluster in places like northeastern Kentucky, near Cincinnati, and the Inland Empire east of Los Angeles. So they draw from the same talent pool. And competition for workers is getting fierce.

Logistics staffing firm ProLogistix reports that starting pay is up 6 percent over last year. Fulfilment company Radial similarly boosted wages in December. “Last year was really the tipping point for us,” Robyn Jordan, senior director of human resources for Radial’s global operations, told The Wall Street Journal.

That tipping point is otherwise known as the retail meltdown.

It’s easy to see empty storefronts and dying malls. But out of sight warehouses are buzzing with orders and the workers who fill them. Delivery services like UPS and FedEx are expanding their facilities, creating jobs not only for their own employees but for construction crews. Retail evolution is a change, not a disaster. And it’s too soon to write regular guys out of the economic future.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

By Virginia Postrel; editor: Mike Nizza.

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