A dive into labor statistics to find the effects of the extreme retail disruption of recent years shows that folks who lost their jobs when their local Dressbarn, Forever 21 or Payless ShoeSource went under probably landed another job in retail relatively quickly. Retail has higher employee turnover than all but a few industries.

So if those workers are not getting laid off and not entering unemployment, where are the multitudes who vanished from the retail payrolls during that time?

We couldn’t be sure either, until we looked at the other side of the equation, the people getting jobs as retail salespeople. There are a lot of forces at work, but we’ll risk a little oversimplification here: The refugees of the retail apocalypse are the young men and women who would have gotten their first jobs in retail had they not been beat out by more experienced, laid-off workers.

“People often think the sign of a weaker labor market is lots of layoffs,” said Nick Bunker, economist at the job site Indeed. “But an underappreciated symptom of a weak labor market is employers pulling back on hiring.”

Retail’s demand for armies of low-skilled labor has long made it a key stop between schools or couches and full-time employment. It’s where many workers, especially young ones, learn soft skills and build résumés that will set them up for success with future employers across the economy, said Mark Mathews, National Retail Federation’s vice president of research and industry analysis.

“That’s the first rung on the job ladder,” Bunker said. “That’s really important because there are just some industries, occupations and companies who only hire people who are currently working and have a lot of job experience.”

During the apocalypse, retail’s role as a route into the workforce has come under threat. When we looked at running totals of workers who had entered the workforce in the past year, we found that no occupation shrank more between the pre-apocalyptic (2012 to September 2015) and post-apocalyptic (2017 to present) periods than the retail salesperson. The next farthest-falling jobs for new entrants, janitors and child-care workers, dropped less than a third as far as retail.

Other Labor Department numbers, while not directly comparable, tell a similar story. Job openings in the broader retail sector fell 27% in the year ending in September — faster than any other industry over that time.


Van Dam writes for the Washington Post.