Could the evidence be clearer? President Trump constantly bewails job losses in parts of the economy like manufacturing and coal mining. But he’s ignoring the much larger employment bloodbath in the nation’s retail sector. Worse, the contrast shows what a racist and sexist Trump is, since minorities and women make up much larger shares of the workforce in retail than in factories and mines.
Here’s one answer: The evidence for these propositions could be a lot clearer. Indeed, according to the U.S. government’s employment statistics, it doesn’t exist.
I decided to look at the numbers because the JOLTS data for May came out this morning, and I was once again amazed at the results for retail. As known by RealityChek regulars, these data measure turnover in the labor force, and are highly regarded by no less than Fed Chair Janet Yellen – a leading labor economist. The new figures, which are still preliminary, show that American retailers claimed 638,000 job openings in their businesses, and hired 718,000 new workers (the latter data represent total positions filled, not net new hires).
It’s true that the openings numbers in particular can be dicey. But those for this past May seem pretty consistent with the data going back many years. Moreover, they show that over the last eight years (practically the length of the current economic recovery), retail openings have more than doubled, and hires are up by nearly 31 percent. Both indicators are lower than that for the private sector as a whole (where job openings are up 140.14 percent, and hires are up 45.24 percent since May, 2009). But the gap is hardly yawning. Nor is there any indication from the JOLTS data that retail openings or hires have lost major – or any – momentum in the last few years.
The actual net new job-creation numbers don’t reveal any “retail-pocalyse,” either. Since June, 2009 (when the current recovery officially began) retail payrolls have grown by nine percent. That’s slower than the increase overall private sector employment (14.39 percent). But the gap proportionately was actually greater during the previous recovery, when private sector employment rose by 5.83 percent, and the retail sector’s staffing was up by 3.18 percent.
Maybe this is because, as widely reported, jobs are migrating from bricks and mortars retail stores to on-line shopping businesses? Absolutely. And this trend is indeed rising in importance. During the previous recovery (which only lasted six years, from the end of 2001 through the end of 2007), electronic retail employment rose by 64 percent – just about a third as fast as during the current recovery (174.44 percent).
But in absolute terms, the electronic retail sector is hardly a mass employer. Its workforce totaled less than 260,000 as of this May. Retail overall employed just under 15.85 million that month, and during the recovery, bricks and mortars payrolls grew by a not-too-shabby 1.14 million.
At the same time, the actual employment figures do show that retail hiring is running out of steam, at least for the time being. Year-on-year, the sector boosted payrolls by just 0.12 percent. The previous two May-May annual increases? 1.37 percent between 2015 and 2016, and 1.71 percent the year before. By contrast, employment grew by 12.22 percent in electronic retailing from May, 2016 to May, 2017, and by 12.60 percent the year before. So conventional stores are now losing employees on net.
At the same time, these results are a far cry from a blood-letting. And annual job-creation in the overall private sector has been slowing as well. Further, many observers insist that bricks and mortars companies long built way too many stores. So their payrolls (and overall scale) may, at least to some extent, simply be returning to more sustainable levels. These conclusions obviously won’t satisfy the Trump-haters among us. They’re simply consistent with the facts.