The Obsolete Jobs Club

Wal-Mart greeters move on, but what do we lose in the process?

From an economic standpoint, it’s hard to lament the loss of the Wal-Mart greeter. The prospect of getting paid minimum wage to stand at the front of a store in a “How May I Help You?” vest is hardly the stuff that inspires future generations to dream big about their careers. Yet news in late January that the world’s largest retailer has removed greeters from the overnight shift at its 3,800-plus U.S. stores—and is redefining the role of daytime greeters, too—evoked a reaction that borders on disbelief. Analyst David Strasser of Janney Montgomery Scott called the strategy “risky,” while editorial writers at the Chicago Sun-Times admitted that the move “bums us out.” Never mind that customers will likely be better served by having those workers stock shelves instead. For some, the idea that a 30-year tradition at America’s largest private employer might end is cause enough to mourn.

While declining demand for discount-store greeters isn’t the kind of creative disruption that upends an economy, it’s a useful reminder that jobs come and go. Technology is typically the culprit that kills off entire categories of workers, whether it’s those producing celluloid film for the now-bankrupt Eastman Kodak or the 50,000 file clerks the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts will lose jobs in the decade ending in 2018. But shifting demands in the workplace also play a role. Just as smartphones and e-mail reduced the need for secretaries, so too have crowdsourcing and aggregation placed strains on plenty of other job categories.

Few lament the passing of blacksmiths or sleeping car porters, the flight attendants of their day who numbered 15,000 in the 1940s. But today’s Americans care a lot more when job erosion threatens their own livelihoods. President Barack Obama saw the reaction first-hand last August when he illustrated the impact of automation by asking a town hall audience in Atkinson, Ill., “When was the last time somebody went to a bank teller instead of using the ATM, or used a travel agent instead of just going online?” The response was an immediate protest letter from the American Society of Travel Agents, noting the existence of some 10,000 agencies across the country. Not mentioned was the fact that the number cited is less than a third the total about a decade earlier—when the U.S. population and volume of travel was smaller. Humans may still handle packaged tours and elements of corporate travel, but they’re rarely needed to book an ordinary trip. That’s the kind of commodity task most customers now handle themselves.

How people cope with disruptive change in the job market is often a factor of age, skills, or even location. Kevin Stolarick, research director at the Rotman School’s Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, notes that port cities like Boston, San Francisco, and Singapore are often hubs of innovation because they get a constant flow of immigrants and the new ideas they bring with them. Efforts to create transformative job shifts in more insular places like the Middle East have been less successful. “They’ve invested a lot in education, but they don’t want to change their societies,” says Stolarick. “I’ve yet to see anybody who can do it” with such restraints.

Even many at-risk U.S. workers are grudgingly coming to accept the inevitability of job evolution. Take postal workers, who have seen their job prospects plunge with the advance of e-mail and electronic payments and the rise of Facebook. The BLS says 54,000 U.S. Postal Service mail sorters and machine operators will lose their jobs from 2008 to 2018; that’s 30 percent of their total. Yet postal carrier Orlando Gonzalez, who has worked on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for 18 years, sees an upside to technology’s march. “As more people work from home, that creates demand for our services,” he says. “Each home can become its own post office. We have an infrastructure that touches every home. That’s something special you can adapt to the times. Parts of the job change, but the value of what we do doesn’t.”

Of course, there’s a difference between jobs that are transformed or eliminated by innovation and those that simply get outsourced to lower-cost locales. Vineet Nayar, chief executive officer of Indian info tech firm HCL Technologies, has profited from both. He sees the power of technology in “de-skilling” jobs like technical support to the point where one-time housewives at a computer screen half a world away can perform roles once reserved for highly trained technicians back home. At the same time, he grows wistful when thinking about how an economy once built on artisans is giving way to standardized products and mass-produced goods. “A lot of the guys who made customized shoes and suits are gone; instead you get these ready-made garments that don’t fit as well,” says Nayar, who hopes his favorite tailor never goes out of business. “I can buy a suit anywhere in the world and it will never fit as well as one made by him.”

In the end, customer preferences may be the best gauge of whether job loss is permanent. To Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei, co-author of a book called Uncommon Service, that means celebrating technologies that free people from mundane jobs while questioning those that thrust new responsibilities on consumers instead. “Self-service [checkout] in a grocery store is a travesty,” argues Frei. “You have to ask yourself if customers would probably pay extra for self-service. Eliminating jobs just to save money almost never goes well.”

That again raises questions about the role of the Wal-Mart greeters, and the reasons for their late-night demise and daytime redeployment elsewhere in the store. The problem isn’t so much the expense of having a friendly face by the door, says Wal-Mart Stores spokesman David Tovar, as the fact that a greeter’s role has evolved into something different. “Over the years they’ve been asked to handle returns, organize carts, clean carts, and do other things,” says Tovar. So instead of asking staffers to multitask while getting blasted with cold air or heat every time a customer walks in, the Wal-Mart chain says it’s decided to reposition those daytime workers to higher traffic areas about 15 feet away where they may be more useful to shoppers who need help. “The goal is to get them back to being greeters again,” Tovar says. Still, for him there’s no nostalgia about the departed welcome staff on the graveyard shift. “Sam Walton,” he’s quick to note, “was one of the biggest champions of change.”

— With assistance by David Welch


    The bottom line: Wal-Mart is getting rid of some of its store greeters and changing the role of those remaining. Postal workers can commiserate.

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