Paul Krugman used his column this morning to ask why we don't pay as much attention to the loss of jobs in retail as we do to jobs lost in mining and manufacturing. His answer is that in large part the latter jobs tend to be more white and male than the latter. While this is true, although African Americans have historically been over-represented in manufacturing, there is another simpler explanation: retail jobs tend to not be very good jobs.
The basic story is that jobs in mining and manufacturing tend to offer higher pay and are far more likely to come with health care and pension benefits than retail jobs. A worker who loses a job in these sectors is unlikely to find a comparable job elsewhere. In retail, the odds are that a person who loses a job will be able to find one with similar pay and benefits.
A quick look at average weekly wages can make this point. In mining the average weekly wage is $1,450, in manufacturing it is $1,070, by comparison in retail it is just $555. It is worth mentioning that much of this difference is in hours worked, not the hourly pay. There is nothing wrong with working shorter workweeks (in fact, I think it is a very good idea), but for those who need a 40 hour plus workweek to make ends meet, a 30-hour a week job will not fit the bill.
This difference in job quality is apparent in the difference in separation rates by industry. (This is the percentage of workers who lose or leave their job every month.) It was 2.4 percent for the most recent month in manufacturing. By comparison, it was 4.7 percent in retail, almost twice as high. (It was 5.2 percent in mining and logging. My guess is that this is driven by logging, but I will leave that one for folks who know the industry better.)
Anyhow, it shouldn't be a mystery that we tend to be more concerned about the loss of good jobs than the loss of jobs that are not very good. If we want to ask a deeper question, as to why retail jobs are not very good, then the demographics almost certainly play a big role.
Since only a small segment of the workforce is going to be employed in manufacturing regardless of what we do on trade (even the Baker dream policy will add at most 2 million jobs), we should be focused on making retail and other service sector jobs good jobs. The full agenda for making this transformation is a long one (higher minimum wages and unions would be a big part of the picture, along with universal health care insurance and a national pension system), but there is one immediate item on the agenda.
All right-minded people should be yelling about the Federal Reserve Board's interest rate hikes. The point of these hikes is to slow the economy and reduce the rate of job creation. The Fed's concern is that the labor market is getting too tight. In a tighter labor market workers, especially those at the bottom of the pecking order, are able to get larger wage increases. The Fed is ostensibly worried that this can lead to higher inflation, which can get us to a wage price spiral like we saw in the 70s.
As I and others have argued, there is little basis for thinking that we are anywhere close to a 1970s-type inflation, with inflation consistently running below the Fed's 2.0 percent target, (which many of us think is too low anyhow). I'd love to see Krugman pushing the cause of full employment here. We should call out racism and sexism where we see it, but this is a case where there is a concrete policy that can do something to address it. Come on Paul, we need your voice.