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Retail Employment is Shrinking—or Is It?

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In the nine months ending September 2017, U.S. employers added a total of 1.3 million jobs, pushing unemployment down to 4.2%, according to the most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

During this same period, the retail industry suffered a net decrease of 72,000 jobs, bringing total employment in the sector to 15.8 million, or 10.8% of total nonfarm employment in the U.S., its lowest share in decades.

Most of the job loss was in the department store sector, where 27,000 positions were eliminated, in addition to a decrease of 20,000 jobs in the specialty store channel, not surprising given the pace at which mall-based retailers are downsizing their fleets in response to changing consumer shopping preferences.

By contrast, non-store retail, which is dominated by e-commerce, saw its net employment increase by 24,000 jobs in the year-to-date period, meaning that traditional brick-and-mortar retail employment actually fell by 96,000 jobs.

But is the story really as gloomy as the data might suggest? The healthy condition of retail sales and consumer spending indicates that perhaps the traditional measures of retail employment don’t really tell the full story anymore.

During the same nine-month period, employment at delivery services like UPS, Fedex, DHL and others increased by 9,000. Warehouses added another 18,000 jobs in the January to September timeframe, bringing logistics employment up by 27,000 net new jobs. These numbers are expected to grow dramatically as these companies gear up for holiday 2017.

Amazon reportedly has tens of thousands of full-time  positions still open in many of its new warehouses across the country, not including the 120,000 temporary workers it plans to hire for holiday. The company’s employment growth is not just at the entry level, either: Amazon plans to add over 50,000 to its office headcount this year. Last week, the Wall Street Journal story revealed that the Seattle company is the number one recruiter of MBAs in the U.S.

Another factor clouding (no pun intended) the employment data is that Amazon, despite being the biggest disruptor in the retail industry, is considered by many to be a tech company. Much of the work done by the swelling ranks of developers and engineers at Amazon, Facebook, Google and similar firms is for the retail business. At least a quarter of the 96,000 new tech jobs created so far this year in the U.S. are estimated to be for retailers. A recent study by Glassdoor estimates that retail tech jobs have grown by double digits in the past year.

The key takeaway here is that although employment in traditional retail is falling, it’s actually on the rise in next-gen commerce. As the six-trillion-dollar retail industry continues to evolve, the metrics with which we gauge its health will no doubt change as well.

 

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