Retail employment outlook: Dead-end? Maybe. Dead? Not yet.

Between online shopping and the self-checkout lane, no wonder so many people are forecasting the decline and fall of retail jobs. Since retail is Nevada’s second largest employer, I wanted to take another look at the sector’s employment projections.

Background: As you may know, for the last couple years I’ve been challenging conventional wisdom, conventionally echoed in the press, about the composition of Nevada’s future workforce. Official projections, when stripped of wishful thinking and rosy “jobs of tomorrow” rhetoric, show the jobs that will grow most in the future, in terms of raw numbers, are pretty much the same low-pay low-quality jobs that account for roughly one-third of today’s workforce. My goal, toward which no measurable progress whatsoever can be reported, is to make policymakers recognize that better pay and conditions in those jobs we actually have is a more urgent priority than a prevailing economic/education agenda driven by people, starting with the governor, who assume all of Nevada’s yucky jobs will be replaced by yummy ones.

So! Here (again) are the jobs projected to have the most openings in Nevada through 2024:

Those projections were generated by Bureau of Labor Statistics data and loaded up on the state Dept. of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation’s website. When I first analyzed the data in 2015, retail salespersons came in second to “food preparation and serving workers, including fast food.” The projections have been revised since then, and now retail salesperson is the single occupation in which more Nevadans are projected to be hired than any other.

But that can’t be right, right? Because of the internet and automation? Right?

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Since the crash, retail has recovered and then some.

The growth line tapered between 2015 and last year (the retail tail — ha ha I crack myself up). But on the whole, well, I wish the line graph for NV median household income looked like that.

(Btw it doesn’t. It looks like this——–>

…but I digress.)

About 12,000 retail jobs came back after the crash — when the sector shrank, the internet didn’t drown it. Nor did the internet prevent creation of another 6,000 retail jobs.

Notwithstanding ubiquitous headlines declaring the decline and fall of brick and mortar stores, your internet still accounts for less than 10 percent of total national retail sales.

Online presumably will continue to make up a larger and larger portion of total sales over time. But online sales aren’t going to displace tens of thousands of Nevada retail salespersons next week, or next month, or next year, or for that matter during the next governor’s administration.

And however rapidly online sales replace physical sales nationally, it seems fair to assume Nevada, or at least the great big Las Vegas part of it, will trail the pace of displacement because of destination/recreational shopping, i.e, shopping while tourist.

Retail salesperson is one of the occupations projected to see the most job growth nationally, not just in Nevada. “To compete with e-commerce, retail stores are expected to focus on customer service, which is expected increase employment for salespersons,” according to the BLS. Meantime, the retail industry itself has noted a phenomenon with which I’m pretty familiar and maybe you are too: online research and window-shopping leads to customers buying stuff in a physical store.

That doesn’t mean the internet, or for that matter consumer taste or – more disturbingly – polarization of income and hence polarization of shopping won’t take it’s toll on the likes of Sears or Penney’s. But we’re going to have brick and mortar stores for the foreseeable future.

So will anyone work in them?

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A recent study by Pricewaterhouse Coopers on the impact of automation predicts a near collapse of retail employment. A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that jobs have already been lost to automation, albeit not as much in retail as in other sectors, particularly manufacturing. Famously eye-popping research published by Oxford researchers C.B. Frey and M.A. Osborne in 2013 predicted nearly half of U.S. jobs are vulnerable to automation, and ranked retail sales one of the occupations most certain to be replaced by automation over time.

But how much time? For instance, the Pricewaterhouse Coopers study predicts jobs will be at “high risk” of automation “by the early 2030s.”

And it seems every study predicting robots are going to wolf down all the jobs generates a study shooting down the prediction as an exaggeration. For instance, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development all but scoffs at the Oxford study, finding that “only 9% of all individuals in the US face a high automatibility,” a figure that “stands in contrast to [Frey and Osborne], who argue that 47% of US jobs are at high risk of being automated.” OECD takes specific aim at Frey and Osborne’s declaration of the decline of retail employment, noting that jobs most likely to be automated are those that do not require group work or face-to-face interaction, and only 4 percent of retail jobs fall into that category.

Yes, I bet many of you have strong opinions about the automation debate! Alas, I don’t think I do, except to observe that retail is currently Nevada’s second largest employer and it will continue to employ a sizable chunk of the Nevada workforce for years and years and years so policymakers should acknowledge that instead of ignoring it.