Opportunities exist in Oklahoma for retail careers, despite a jobs decline

Friday, June 30th, 2017 - Jobs

While retail jobs growth in Oklahoma had been keeping pace with jobs across other sectors of the state’s economy during most of the past decade, that number has been falling the past year.

According to a monthly survey the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission conducts with employers, there were 184,400 retail jobs in the state in May 2016.

The preliminary number for retail jobs in May 2017, however, was just 177,200.

Analysts attribute the reduction to ongoing changes in the retail landscape.

Throughout the country and in many parts of Oklahoma, “big box” retailers that operate as national chains have been shutting the doors of their brick-and-mortar stores.

In some cases, the closures were caused by bankruptcies. In others, the retailer opted to cut operational losses as they sought to sell more of their product online.

The analysts say these closures bring certainties that have both positive and negative connotations that come with the changing landscape.

On one hand, there’s less of an availability of positions a younger Oklahoman might apply for in the retail trade industry now than there was just a year ago.

But on the other hand, more and more local, independent “Mom and Pop” operations are starting up throughout many parts of the state.

Plus, there’s still a definite demand inside the industry for workers who are willing to make the retail field their careers.

Nostalgia lost

Kiley Raper, CEO with the Oklahoma Retail Merchants Association, said her biggest concern with recent changes in the retail jobs market is a potential loss of employment opportunity for some of the state’s newest workers.

Raper said no matter who she visits, she’s routinely told by people that the first job they ever held was in a retail business.

She said that’s been the case for more than a third of Americans, and the case for her, personally, too.

And while retail jobs don’t pay as well as others, such as those in oil and gas, there are far more retail jobs in the economy than people realize. Raper said one in ten people who are employed work in retail across the nation, and a third of those work part time.

“We still have a pretty low unemployment rate in Oklahoma, and we are fortunate in that regard,” Raper said. “But these kinds of job losses can make it hard for teenagers to get into the market and get some work experience.”

Raper said the erosion of retail jobs also can make it harder for some of the state’s oldest workers to remain employed.

Still, a seemingly relentless retreat of mainstream retailers from the marketplace doesn’t mean new jobs aren’t being created in the field.

“New micro businesses that retail products to customers are opening up in many parts of the state, whether they are doing business entirely online or operating out of actual stores,” she said. “I see a lot of small business owners starting out online.”

Meanwhile, Raper said her organization’s members also are telling her they are having a difficult time in finding potential employees interested in working in the business.

Plus, Raper said people need to think of retail as a career option.

“If you understand the market and understand the business, there are opportunities,” she said.

“There are chains where a majority of their senior management people started out working at registers. There are two sides to this.”

Trend signals change

Robert Dauffenbach, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Economic and Management Research, agreed the decline of retail jobs numbers in Oklahoma the past year is telling.

“There’s no question that retail trade is under attack by the online dimension,” he said. “Certainly the decrease in retail jobs that you’ve seen this past year is evidence of the magnitude of that attack.”

But he said the shifts are just products of change.

Dauffenbach said consumers’ demand for goods continues, yet those who sell goods continue to make efforts to boost their productivity by adding automation to the process.

In some cases, that might mean customers are encouraged to check and bag their own groceries at a local store.

In others, though, it might mean people decide it’s easier to buy what they need online.

This, he noted, probably creates additional transportation and service-related jobs, as delivery drivers are needed to get the products people buy from the retailer to their homes.

“That’s a compensating factor,” he said.

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