The US retail industry is hemorrhaging jobs – and it’s hitting women hardest

The US retail industry is hemorrhaging jobs – and it's hitting women hardest Smiling women

The holiday season was a hit for US retailers, but not if you’re a woman working for one. Company sales reports are coming in and so far they indicate the holiday season was a big success. At the same time evidence is emerging that the radical reordering of the retail landscape is hitting women hard, and there may be worse to come.

The retail sector has been the biggest loser of jobs for the last two years in a row in the US, as thousands of stores closed as shoppers moved online. It remains one of the US’s largest employers, providing 15.8m jobs, but the reordering of the retail landscape is having a profound impact on the nature of its workforce.

Between November 2016 and November 2017, the sector fired 129,000 women (the largest loss for any industrial sector for either sex) while men gained 109,000 positions, according to an analysis by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). In the whole labor force, women gained 985,000 jobs over the year, while men gained 1.08m jobs.

Retail remains a “hugely important” employer for women, said Heidi Hartmann, IWPR president, especially as a provider of part-time jobs for women who are looking to balance work with family obligations. “Women are very dependent on the nearby shopping center and retail outlets especially as they get back into the work market.”

But the shift in how Americans shop – and in what they are buying – is having a profound effect.

Major retailers shut shops across the US last year. A record 6,700 stores shut in 2017, according to Fung Global Retail & Technology, a retail thinktank. Macy’s alone closed 68 stores and shed 10,000 jobs. Drugstore chain Walgreen’s closed 600 locations.

New jobs are being created in shipping, handling, back office and warehousing but traditional retail is being hollowed out with the loss of checkout and sales assistant jobs.

“There are still jobs being created in retail but they are jobs with different skill sets,” said Andrew Challenger, vice-president of outplacement experts Challenger, Gray and Christmas. But despite those gains, “there is real job loss going on and we may not see those jobs coming back. In many cases these jobs are being lost in places where retailers are the largest employers in the area.”

Challenger described the losses as one of the most dramatic changes in the jobs market the US had witnessed since manufacturing was rocked by outsourcing and automation.

Hartmann said there were some similarities with the hollowing out of manufacturing.

“Women lost jobs in manufacturing first. They had the easiest jobs to ship abroad – clothing, textiles – and the men had the jobs that did eventually get shipped abroad but were more difficult to move, like cars, with big transportation costs.”

She pointed out that women are still the majority recipients of the trade assistance adjustment act – benefits that are given to US workers for retraining if they lose their employment because of international trade.

But she said other factors were also at play. The recovery of “consumer durable” sales – which are sales of big ticket items such as cars and home appliances – have bounced back, and men hold more of the retail jobs in those sectors.

“When you have a long, slow recovery, most people have put off renewing their washing machine, their fridge, their car and now they are feeling that they can start those purchases again. And it seems like they want to see those goods at the store. And those stores offer services, taking away old appliances, installing the new one. Less of those orders are being done online. And there have always been more men in those sectors,” she said.

The Amazon effect too is hurting women more than men. Alongside store closures in non-durable goods – food and clothing for example – retailers are experimenting with ways to remove checkout positions, jobs where women dominate.

The new shape of retail is still in flux and positions created by online retailing are not always categorized as retail in the government jobs figures. But the trend so far looks worrying for women.

“It’s a stunning thing to show women have lost more than 100,000 jobs over the year and men have gained almost as many. It does look like coal in the stocking for Christmas for many women workers,” said Hartmann.