The Atantic wrote a great piece in their September 2011 issue called “Can the Middle Class Be Saved?” In March, the national unemployment rate was twelve percent for people with a high school diploma, 4.5 percent for college graduates, and two percent for professional degree holders. The question shouldn’t be whether the middle class can be saved, it should be whether the lower class can be saved.
Much has been made of the housing crisis, America’s inability to properly handle the exploding deficit, and the death of the U.S. manufacturing industry as some of the main sources of job loses in the last decade. Technological innovation has not only changed the way people live their lives, but more specifically where they spend their money. Traditionally mundane and manual jobs are being slaughtered in favor of goods, services, and processes delivered and experienced in more efficient ways. These efficiencies are eliminating many sectors of low paying jobs forever. Which industries are being hit the hardest?
1. Borders (…and book stores)
In late July, Borders closed down 399 stores and announced layoffs of 10,700 employees. Borders simply didn’t have an answer to the B&N Nook, Apple iPad, or Amazon Kindle. At the time of this post, almost 20% of Americans own a tablet, e-reader, or smartphone from which they regularly consume books. Those over-worked and frazzled-but-friendly Borders staffers would help you find some good titles in a pinch, but the convenience of buying a hardcover or digital book online or off an e-reader renders the staffer useless (sadly). I won’t drive to the store anymore with the hopes a limited run book is sitting on the shelf; I’ll simply go on half.com or amazon.com and get 2-3 day shipping. Oh, and Amazon’s book recommendation algorithm is good. Real good.
2. USPS (…and postal carriers)
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds…but email will”
The unofficial United States Postal Service Creed, inscribed in the James Farley Postal Service Office in New York City, has been the mantra of one of the most respected lower-income professions in American history. As scanning, PDFing, faxing, emailing, e-signing, e-carding, and Dropbox-ing have become the new norm, letters and manual bill-paying are a thing of the past. When was the last time you cut a check to pay a bill?
While many European mailing systems have evolved to work within this new construct, the USPS has been slow to adapt. The postal service’s staff of just under 500,000 workers will be halved in the next few years. 220,000 positions will be slashed by 2015. Many postal service workers have been working in the system for decades and will need retraining in economic areas of current and future need.
3. CVS (…and convenience stores)
I remember when I was a little guy and dad always let me pick out a candy bar at CVS and hand it to the lady behind the counter. Yesterday, I spied a child snag a Rolo from the shelf, walk over to the self-serve registers, scan the candy himself, put it in the bag, put a dollar bill in the slot, rip off the receipt, and walk away with the candy bar. Instead of 5 cash registers at CVS I saw 1 cash register (for the laggards) and a bank of 4 self-serve registers. This Somerville, MA, CVS has effectively reduced its front-end employee count from 5 cashiers to one cashier and one employee managing the self-serve register bank. Let’s not even talk about the 1-hour photo guy. Towards the front of most convenience stores you’ll find two or three Kodak machines that allow customers to custom color/crop/size their photos. Oh, and the pharmacists standing in the back? Cling to those fat paychecks as long as you can as automated pill dispensers speed up the prescription delivery process. 99.7% counting accuracy. Unless your friends call you rain man, you can’t match that.
4. Gannett (…and newspapers)
…and another 700 employees at Gannett got axed last week. Ouch. Legions of forests rejoice as newspapers print fewer and fewer editions. Some publications have moved to ever-improving ‘porous paywalls‘ to stem the red ink while others desperately hire salespeople to find the last remaining black ink afficionados. 2,596+ newspaper jobs have been eliminated in 2011, a mere blip compared to the 15,000+ jobs lost in 2009. Newspaper administration included a good percentage of lower skilled workers. The industry, however, is finally getting meaner and leaner as they learn to live in the ‘adapt or die’ culture of online journalism and reporting.
The Real Question
What’s next for all these low-skilled workers? Will they adapt to a changing environment by learning new skills? Will they sit on unemployment for 99 weeks and fall off the rolls? There needs to be a concerted effort moving forward to energize the unemployed. The federal government’s OPPORTUNITY.gov initiative is a great start, but there needs to be a techtonic shift to technical education and re-employment. Technology spurred an occupational movement that will only accelerate in time. Let’s move quickly.