Few sectors have been hit harder than retail. Even before the pandemic, many of NYC’s 32,000 brick-and-mortar businesses were struggling against strong competition from e-commerce and national chains, shifting consumption patterns, and fast rising costs of operation. COVID-19 restrictions have deterred casual shoppers, and the collapse of tourism has robbed the city’s retailers of tens of billions of dollars. Each week brings news of another iconic NYC retailer on the brink or going under.
The survival and recovery of NYC’s retailers has depended heavily on the sector’s 300,000+ workers, who in many cases have made financial sacrifices and risked health and safety to keep businesses going. On October 20th, WPTI and the NYC Economic Development Corporation presented the WPTI Retail Sector Employer Symposium, a two-hour free event bringing together 125 workforce development practitioners from 59 organizations to hear from economists, hiring managers, small business owners, union representatives, retail industry groups and more about how our field can support NYC’s retailers and workers. This session was the first in the WPTI/NYCEDC Employer Symposium series to help workforce organizations better understand the needs of different sectors during these unprecedented times
The State of New York City’s Retail Labor Market
James Parrott, senior labor market economist at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, kicked off the symposium with a detailed overview of New York City’s retail economy, the makeup of the sector’s workforce, and how COVID-19 has impacted both businesses and workers. His research revealed that:
- Prior to COVID-19, New York City was home to 340,000 retail jobs at 32,000 businesses – approximately 10 percent of all wage-paying jobs citywide, and more than 1 in 7 entry-level jobs.
- In-person, lower-wage sectors like retail, hospitality and food service have experienced the greatest impact in 2020. This has resulted in disproportionate job losses for workers of color, young adults, immigrants, and entry-level workers.
- New York’s economy has been hit harder than that of the nation, and has taken longer to recover. Total jobs are down 14 percent relative to February, compared to 6 percent for the nation as a whole. In the retail sector, New York’s total jobs are down 10 percent, while the nation is down only 2 percent.
- Economic damage has varied within the retail sector, with job losses greatest among brick-and-mortar sellers of discretionary items like clothing and furniture as consumers tighten purse strings and minimize time in physical stores. By contrast, drug stores and e-commerce sites have added workers during the downturn to meet increasing demand for essentials.
- The demand for greater technological skills among workers is accelerating with the tilt toward e-commerce and adoption of digital tools by traditional retailers.
- COVID-19 has focused attention on the health and safety of retail workers in both traditional retail and e-commerce work environments. It has also highlighted ongoing weaknesses in the social safety net around unemployment benefits for part-time workers and affordable childcare.
James Parrott’s presentation is available for download. A full report on the state of NYC retail will be released by the Center for New York City Affairs in mid-November. We look forward to sending you this report upon its release.
Voice from the Sector: Reflections of Employers and Other Retail Stakeholders
Following the “big picture” provided by James Parrott, we brought together a panel of speakers to describe how the pandemic has directly impacted retailers and workers. The central theme was that even in the midst of this historic downturn, retail is open for business and actively hiring – and increasingly reliant on workforce development organizations to streamline the process.
- Representatives from The Gap and CVS Health described ongoing partnerships with workforce providers and internal training initiatives to connect with applicants from underrepresented communities to jobs and create opportunities for advancement and career pathways in the retail sector.
- Uncommon Goods, an e-commerce company based in Brooklyn, is also working with local workforce providers to hire hundreds of seasonal workers for the busy holiday season, including on-site warehouse and security workers as well as remote customer service and other staff, all through their online system. Paper Source is investing in training to upskill both new and incumbent workers on workplace technology like iPads.
- Smaller employers, including Sahadi’s and Ideal Uniforms, stressed the critical importance of teamwork and flexibility in a rapidly changing work environment where sales have increasingly shifted online and businesses are implementing new processes like curbside pickup. Sahadi’s indicated they were hiring as well, while Ideal Uniforms is currently fully staffed, but may be hiring again in the future.
- Representatives from the National Retail Federation (NRF) and the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Workers Union (RWDSU) emphasized the importance of job quality, access, and opportunities for career advancement. RWDSU emphasized the importance of workers knowing their rights and protections, especially critical at a time in which workplace safety is particularly urgent. The union also urged workforce providers to focus on job quality when making placements, and to ensure they are not complicit in supporting unsafe or unfair work environments. NRF discussed their efforts to develop training and credentialing programs for retail candidates and reducing barriers to securing jobs, as well as efforts to improve pathways to career advancement for retail workers from underrepresented backgrounds.
Panelists expressed a strong desire to work with local workforce providers on hiring, and stressed key attributes that make for a successful workforce partnership:
- Hiring is a costly, time-consuming process for any business, especially during a recession when employers must be more selective and every opening draws hundreds of applications.
- Understand hiring needs and systems, and then follow those systems to make the process as seamless as possible.
- The more workforce programs can tweak their own services to match employer needs, the greater the potential for partnership. Reach out to hiring managers to identify synergies.
- Workforce programs should ensure that all applicants possess basic digital skills and ability to adapt to a COVID-impacted work environment.
- Employers – particularly smaller businesses – are often overwhelmed and have limited bandwidth, so practitioners must be flexible and efficient. Retailers are frequently reinventing their own workflows to meet the challenges of the moment.