As Amazon booms, retail jobs shift

The Boston Globe – Hundreds of people flocked to the Amazon job fair here early this month: store clerks, security guards, technicians, an EMT, an iPhone repairman, even a manager at a hospital — some unemployed, many not — ranging in age from teens to retirees. They were lured by the prospect of a full-time job with benefits at a company so successful it has obliterated jobs across the retail landscape.

Amazon the job killer is also creating jobs at a staggering pace, mostly in its massive warehouse and delivery operations. But will there be enough for the workers displaced by its vast success? Are people better off packing and shipping boxes than selling suits and skirts?

The Internet has roiled industries throughout the economy, and its impact on traditional retail has been seismic. Brick-and-mortar stores have seen their prospects erode precipitously in the past year. Sears, Macy’s, JCPenney — once mighty chains — are on the ropes.

Amazon has more than 382,000 full-time employees in the United States, 125,000 of them at its fulfillment centers, and its nationwide job fair Aug. 2 was intended to bring in 50,000 more, the majority full time. In Massachusetts, where the company has 3,000 employees and is looking to hire 700 more, job seekers at the warehouse in Fall River waited hours for a chance to tour the facility and apply for a job.

But how stable these fulfillment center jobs are remains to be seen, as automation threatens to displace even more workers. Some online shopping warehouses rely heavily on seasonal and temporary workers, who don’t have the protections that full-time staffers do.

Also, online retailers are so much more productive than brick-and-mortar stores that they need fewer people to get the job done; one online employee generates more than four times the sales revenue that a traditional retail worker makes, according to J.P. Morgan research. Three-quarters of online sellers have four or fewer employees, according to the US Census.

Another cautionary note: Many workers aren’t able to move seamlessly from traditional retailers to e-commerce. Struggling sectors such as clothing and department stores are dominated by female employees, who may be less likely to go into physically taxing warehouse jobs, noted Anastasia Christman, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project. And people in lower-income, urban communities who once worked at shops in their neighborhood — many of them people of color — may not have a ready way to get to the mammoth e-commerce warehouses located outside city centers, Christman said.

Of the Massachusetts residents who left retail jobs in the first quarter of 2016 and were able to find work, more than a third found another retail job, but the next biggest group — 14 percent — transitioned into lodging and food service, according to census data. “They may be moving into jobs that could potentially have even worse wages and working conditions,” Christman said.

And some in-store skills can transfer to online roles, said Jeffrey Neville, a vice president at the Boston-based retail consultancy BRP Consulting. A clothing salesman at Nordstrom, for instance, could become a stylist for the online clothing service Stitch Fix, while in-store employees who order products and stock shelves can do the same for online warehouses.

Today’s fulfillment centers are much more automated than warehouses of the past, but they are moving toward the use of “helper robots” that work alongside people, rather than replacing them, Neville said.

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