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Forget Coal, the Robots Are Really Coming For the Retail Jobs

President Trump has indicated that retaining and restoring jobs in manufacturing and coal is a top priority for his administration. Automation is the biggest threat to those industries — but mining and manufacturing aren’t the only sectors under siege from the robots.
retail jobs
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In fact, retail workers could be among the hardest hit by automation in the coming decade. Up to 47 percent of current retail workers could be replaced by machines over the course of the next 10 years, according to the results of an extensive study released last month. As many as 7.5 million workers could lose their jobs to the robots.

Retail Work Is Especially Vulnerable to Automation

The report, Retail Automation: Stranded Workers?, was compiled by the financial services firm Cornerstone Capital Group. It found that cashier and store clerk positions are the most at-risk jobs within the retail industry. Salespeople and freight handler jobs are also vulnerable, although slightly less so. Other jobs, like store greeters, are more insulated from the automation threat. Jobs like these require an emotional intelligence that robots don’t possess. But, they could be lost too as competition makes the costs of hiring these workers increasingly tough for stores to justify.

Up to 47 percent of retail workers could be replaced by machines over the course of the next 10 years.Click To Tweet

“You’re not going to see a robot stocking shelves, at least in the near term,” John Wilson, head of research at Cornerstone, told CNN. “But technology would reduce the need for as many people to do so. More efficiency means fewer things for people to do.”

By now, many of us have seen the self-checkout options which are increasingly available in stores. This innovation, and ones like it, make the job of cashier “one of the most easily automatable” in any industry, according to the report. So, why aren’t we hearing more about the threat automation poses to the retail industry?

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Cashiers And Coal Miners

If you look at a list (or a fun map) of the nation’s largest employers, it’s clear to see that many of them are based in the retail industry. Walmart alone employs 850,000 people in just 19 states. Many of the people who work in these stores work as cashiers.

Across the country, there are about 16 million jobs in the retail industry. The coal industry, on the other hand, reportedly employed 76,572 people in 2014. There are many more cashiers than coal miners, by a long shot. Another major difference between the job of cashier and that of coal miner comes down to gender. Women make up the majority of cashiers at about 75 percent. Men, on the other hand, dominate jobs in mining and in manufacturing.

We all ought to question old ideas about which paychecks are the most important. In 2017, many women are responsible for caring for their families and themselves financially. For retail workers, this is no easy feat as it is. According to the findings of the Cornerstone study, 36.4 percent of workers in the retail industry currently receive some kind of public assistance either directly or through a family member. Around 27 percent of those who work in manufacturing receive assistance, along with 20.9 percent of mining industry workers. All of these paychecks matter to the families that depend on them. And, the data suggests that cashiers (who are also far more numerous than other workers mentioned on the list) are already feeling the pinch. So, perhaps these workers should be receiving more attention when it comes to concerns about the impact of automation.

Retail workers would be wise to consider the direction of automation trends and begin to think about potential alternative employment options for the future. If possible, working toward receiving some specialized education and training should bring better job security. But, this isn’t an option that’s open to everyone. There is some new research that suggests that bigger cities are less likely to be impacted than smaller cities and towns. Some people might consider relocating over the course of the next few years.

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