McCormack Speaks

Bad Retail Jobs Are Not Inevitable – New Book by Françoise Carré and Chris Tilly Explains Why


book cover: Where Bad Jobs are Betterby Robert Turner, McCormack Graduate School

Retail, the largest U.S. employer, is not inevitably the domain of dead-end jobs with low pay, few benefits, and problematic work schedules. A new study of seven countries demonstrates that better retail jobs are not just possible but already exist.

Françoise Carré of UMass Boston and Chris Tully of UCLA, the study authors, say that changes in government policies and broadly-held values could improve the quality of retail jobs in America, as they have in Europe. New York Times columnist and Economics Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman tagged the study findings as “Supremely important. We have low wages in large part because of political choices, not ineluctable logic of markets.”
Carré is the research director of the Center for Social Policy at UMass Boston’s John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies. Tilly is professor of urban planning in UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. Their research is contained in their new book, Where Bad Jobs are Better: Retail Jobs Across Countries and Companies, published by the Russell Sage Foundation. The book reports on their evaluation of retail jobs and the employment practices of U.S. retailers and it compares U.S. retail job quality with that in European countries and Mexico. For the most part, retail jobs in the states are “bad jobs” characterized by low wages and benefits, unpredictable work schedules, and few opportunities for advancement. Furthermore, the situation is worse for women who fill lower-paying, entry-level jobs primarily in food retail as opposed to their male counterparts who fill the vast majority of higher-paying retail positions.

The publisher writes:  “… labor experts Françoise Carré and Chris Tilly show that these conditions are not inevitable… By carefully analyzing the factors that lead to more desirable retail jobs, Where Bad Jobs Are Better charts a path to improving job quality for all low-wage jobs.”

Carré and Tilly explore what national institutional settings make a difference in job quality and what “room for maneuver” retailers in each country have to manage for better jobs. The authors show that disparities in job quality are largely the result of differing social norms and national institutions. They result from policy choices and how policies interface with managerial practices. In particular, higher minimum wages, greater government regulation of work schedules, and stronger collective bargaining through unions and works councils have improved the quality of retail jobs in Europe.

“Improving retail jobs does not necessarily mean turning them into unambiguously good jobs; retail jobs in our comparison countries are not terrific, but they are better in significant ways,” the authors report.  They also assert that the U.S. can choose to alter the environment for retail jobs and affect their quality. “Put in the simplest terms, U.S. bad jobs in retail and other low-wage industries will improve when changes are made in the institutional environment—laws, labor relations structures, and broadly held values—followed by changes in managerial approaches.”

Using Wal-Mart as an example of a company that dominates retail sectors in both countries, they find that “even this behemoth behaves differently in terms of choice of market segments and labor strategies across countries.” For example, in the United States, Wal-Mart is 100 percent non-unionized, whereas in Mexico, it pays higher wages than its competitors and is mostly unionized. They explain, “Wal-Mart is not the exception to the influence of societal effects around the world, but rather demonstrates that influence. Even Wal-Mart provides better jobs where rules are better.”

Where Bad Jobs Are Better shows how stronger rules and regulations can improve the lives of retail workers and boost the quality of low-wage jobs across the board.

The book closes with thoughts on the future of U.S. retail employment and changes to come from online retailing, consolidation, and other competitive changes. The authors point out that “the evidence is strong that employment in stores is here to stay for a long time to come, in spite of recent predictions of the imminent displacement of store-based retail by online sales.” The authors also raise salient topics including debates on raising the federal minimum wage and proposals for “fair or advance notice scheduling” laws.

More about Where Bad Jobs are Better

Complete introduction and a supplemental chapter on Mexican retail

New York Times critique: Retail Jobs Don’t Need to Be Bad:  Here is Proof.


America’s Employment Problem isn’t Manufacturing. CBS Money Watch. Aimée Picchi.

Thanks to digital commerce, retailers don’t know how to hire for the holidays anymore. Bethany Biron.

Why Retails Jobs are Bad Jobs And how we can make them better. Pacific Standard. Dwyer Gunn

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