Millions of jobs, no experience necessary

Retail trade: millions of jobs, no experience necessary

Daniel Hecker

Retail Trade: Millions of Jobs, No Experience Necessary

Retail trade is one service industry that needs no introduction. Countless TV commericials, page on page of newspaper ads, giant billboards along the highways, and huge signs on buildings and at shopping centers keep the names of thousands of these firms constantly before our eyes. This large industry–almost 17 million employees in 1984–in also the economy’s main point of entry for new workers. From operating a cash register to cooking burgers, from selling clothes to washing dishes, more young people land their first job in retail trade than in any other industry. Jobs are numerous, openings usually plentiful, hours somewhat flexible, and skill requirements low. One result of this combination of factors is that almost 3 million 16- to 19-year-olds held jobs in retail trade in 1983; more than 2 million of them worked part time (less than 35 hours a week). Millions of older workers also held retail jobs requiring little or no experience.

Few of these jobs provide high earnings, and many may not be very challenging or interesting. However, for students or others looking for extra income and for people seeking employment for the first time, these jobs may be just right. They sometimes lead to careers in the industry. More commonly, they serve as bridges to better paying or more promising jobs in other industries.

Low Pay but Flexible Hours

These jobs have many advantages, although the average wage is low. Many people find the hours attractive. Retailers are usually open long hours and can often set up a worker’s schedule to fit with school programs, child-care arrangements, or other demands on a person’s time. The seasonal nature of some of these jobs–those available only in the summer or during the holiday buying rush–is also appealing to students and others who are not looking for year-round positions. Yet another attractive feature of many of these jobs is their proximity to the worker’s home. Retailers are often the closest employers to a residential area, easing the difficulty and shortening the time required to get to work.

Not surprisingly, most of these jobs pay the minumum wage–$3.35 an hour –or only little more. However, there are some highly paid jobs in retail trade that beginners can move up to with experience or special training. Many chshiers in grocery stores and waiters in expensive restaurants have relatively high earnings. Other higher paying occupations in retail trade include store manager, restaurant manager, sales representative, buyer, motor vehicle mechanic, and meat cutter.

Earnings vary widely when retailers are grouped by the kind of products they sell (see chart 1). The proportions of young and part-time workers also vary widely, generally along with earnings. For example, eating and drinking places, apparel and accessories stores, gasoline service stations, and drug stores have a high proportion of young and part-time workers and low average hourly earnings. Grocery stores also have a high proportion of young workers and part-timers, but average earnings are the second highest of the retail trade industries listed. Car dealers, lumber and other building supplies dealers, auto and home supply stores, and furniture and home furnishings stores have low proportions of young workers and part-timers. Average earnings for nonsupervisory workers in these four industries are higher than the average for retail trade in general, although–except for car dealers–they still fell below the $8.43 per hour average for all private nonagricultural establishments in November 1984.

Jobs in retailing are numerous and turnover is very high, particularly in the jobs filled by young workers or part-timers who leave to attend school, tend to household responsibilities full time, or move on to other positions. Many employers are almost always hiring to fill vacancies; some hiring even takes place during recessions. Applicants can often walk into a store, restaurant, or central personnel office and be hired on the spot.

Turnover is high partly because these jobs have several unattractive aspects. Pay is generally low. Fringe benefits, like health insurance, retirement, and sick leave or paid vacation, may also be limited. Many are physically demanding. Workers may have to stand while on duty, carry heavy trays of food, or move heavy merchandise. Working conditions also may be unpleasant. Kitchens may be hot and noisy; pumping gas requires being outdoors in winter snow and summer smog. During busy periods, workers may have to rush to keep up. They may also have to deal with demanding customers. The work generally is repetitive and may offer little opportunity for advancement, stimulation, or growth. Despite the disadvantages, millions of people will continue to seek these jobs because they meet their needs for money or something to do, provide flexible schedules, and are easy to get.

Kinds of Jobs

Most jobs in retailing are simple and easy to learn. They involve unloading trucks; unpacking merchandise; marking prices on it; putting it on shelves, racks, and other displays; operating cash registers; accepting cash and giving change; filling out sales slips and credit card forms; bagging and wrapping merchandise; preparing fast food or short-order food; waiting on tables; and keeping stores and restaurants clean and neat.

Some more experienced or highly trained workers are also needed. People with extensive training or experience are needed to select merchandise that customers will want to buy, prepare advertising, set prices, manage stores, and sell and repair expensive products, such as cars, furniture, and large appliances.

Of the 10 largest occupations in retail trade, only 2–store manager and technical sales representative (who sells expensive products)–require any special skill or experience (See chart 2). For the others, employers generally look for reliable people with pleasant personalities and a neat appearance who have basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills. Many retailers hire 16-year-olds, although some have a higher minimum age. Newly hired people learn job skills in a short time by following an experienced worker and, in some cases, by taking a short on-the-job course given by their employer.

More detailed information is given below about some occupations in retail trade: Cashier, retail trade sales worker, retail buyer, waiter and waitress, cook and chef. Other large occupations important in the industry include motor vehicle mechanic and bartender; for more information on these occupations, consult the 1984-85 Occupational Outlook Handbook, available at most libraries and career information centers.


Supermarket checkout clerk, movie theater ticket seller, department store clerk, and restaurant cashier are among the many different types of cashiers in retail trade. Most receive money, make change, fill out charge forms, and give receipts.

The jobs tend to be entry level, requiring little or no experience. Although there are no specific educational requirements, employers prefer to hire applicants with high school diplomas. Courses in business arithmetic, bookkeeping, typing, and other business subjects are good preparation for cashier jobs. Because they meet the public, cashiers should be neat in appearance and able to deal tactfully and pleasantly with customers.

Typically, about one-half of all job openings are filled by people 19 years of age or younger, and almost three-quarters of all cashiers are below the age of 25. About 1 in 4 is a student.

Beginning cashiers often earn only the minimum wage. Wages for union cashiers are generally higher than those for nonunion workers. Experienced full-time cashiers who were members of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, to which many cashiers belong, earned average wages of $11.17 per hour in 1984; beginners averaged $4.99.

Hours of work depend on the employer’s needs. Cashiers in theaters, restaurants, and foodstores often work during rush periods such as holidays, weekends, late afternoos, and evevings; many work part time or on split shifts.

Promotion opportunities are generally limited; however, the job may serve as a steppingstone to a more responsible position, such as bookkeeper or manager. Cashiers working in chainstores and other large retail businesses, for example, may advance to department or store manager.

In 1982, cashiers held about 1,570,000 jobs, making it one of the largest occupations in the country. More job openings are projected to be available for cashiers than for almost any other occupation through the mid-1990’s.

Retail Trade Sales Worker

A sales worker’s primary job is to interest customers in the store’s merchandise. Most jobs require little or no special knowledge, although sales workers dealing with some kinds of goods, such as cars or stereo equipment, must be able to explain complex features. Besides demonstrating the product’s use, sales workers also make out sales checks, receive payments, make change, wrap purchases, stock shelves, prepare displays, take inventory, and handle exchanges.

Many people who enter this occupation have little or no work experience. Employers prefer applicants who enjoy working with people and can deal with difficult customers tactfully. Other desirable characteristics are an interest in sales work, a pleasant personality, a neat appearance, and the ability to speak clearly. Most entrants are under 25 years of age.

The starting salary for most retail sales workers is the minimum wage; stores that are not covered by minumum wage laws may pay lower salaries. Median weekly earnings of full-time sales workers were about $290 in 1984. Earnings vary considerably according to the type of goods sold, however, ranging from $212 for apparel sales workers to $427 for motor vehicle and boat sales workers. Besides their salary, some sales workers receive a commission based on the value of the goods they sell. Other sales workers receive only a commission; their earnings fluctuate a great deal.

Almost half of all retail sales workers are employed part time (less than 35 hours a week), but most of those who deal with “big ticket’ items work full time. Many full-time workers have a standard 5-day, 40-hour week; in some stores, however, the standard workweek is longer. Employees usually work on Saturday and have a weekday off; evening work is also common. Part-time employees generally work during peak business hours–daytime rush hours, evenings, and weekends.

Opportunities for advancement in small stores are limited; in larger stores, however, capable sales workers are able to advance to administrative or supervisory work. A college degree is becoming increasingly important for advancement. Many people, however, seek retail sales jobs to earn extra income for a short period rther than to begin a career.

Retail sales workers held 3,367,000 jobs in 1982, making this the largest occupation in the retail services industry. Employment is highest in department stores, followed by grocery stores, women’s ready-to-wear stores, drug stores and pharmacies, car dealerships, variety stores, and family clothing stores. As many as a million retail sales jobs may become available in a single year because of turnover. In addition, the growth in demand for these workers is expected to generate more than half a million new jobs during the next decade.

Retail Buyer

Retail buyers purchase the goods that stores will offer their customers. Looking for the best available merchandise at the lowest possible price, they must be able to assess the resale value of goods after a brief inspection and make purchase decisions quickly. They must know what motivates consumers to buy and try to anticipate trends in consumer tastes. Before ordering merchandise, they study market research reports and sales records to determine which products are in demand. They also keep informed about changes in existing products and the development of new ones. They must be familiar with the many manufacturers and wholesale distributors in their industry.

Buyers must be resourceful, show good judgment, and have the confidence to make decisions and take risks. They also need leadership ability, because they supervise sales workers and assistant buyers.

This is not an entry-level occupation. Familiarity with merchandise, whole-saling, and retailing is generally required. Experience is most often gained as an assistant buyer or buyer trainee.

Most employers accept college graduates for buyer trainee programs, which combine classroom instruction in merchandising and purchasing with short rotations to various jobs in the store. Courses in merchandising or marketing may be helpful to applicants but are not essential. Retail trade sales workers may also be accepted as buyer trainees. Most trainees begin as assistant buyers–selling merchandise, supervising sales workers, checking invoices on material received, and keeping account of stock. They gradually assume buying responsibilities, becoming buyers after about a year.

Median annual earnings of buyers were $19,540 in 1984. The top 10 percent earned over $38,480. Their income depends upon the amount and type of product puchased, the employer’s sales volume, and, to some extent, their seniority. They often earn cash bonuses based on performance and may participate in profit sharing or other incentive plans.

Buyers often operate under great pressure. They frequently work more than a 40-hour week because of special sales and conferences. Substantial traveling is required.

Experienced buyers may advance to merchandise manager and to executive jobs such as general merchandise manager for distributors, department stores, or chain stores.

Retail buyers held about 170,000 jobs in 1982. Department stores employ the largest number, but grocery stores employ almost as many. Other major employers are apparel and accessory stores and miscellaneous retail stores such as drug stores, liquor stores, and used merchandise stores. Employment is projected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through the mid-1990’s. Most openings, however, result from replacement needs because many experienced buyers transfer to other occupations such as sales or managerial positions or leave the work force to assume household responsibilities. Competition for buying jobs is usuallay keen.

Cooks and Chefs

A cook’s duties partly on the size and kind of restaurant. Smaller restaurants usually feature a limited number of easy-to-prepare specialties and readymade desserts. Typically, one cook prepares all the food with the help of a short-order cook and one or two kitchen helpers. Large eating places usually have more varied menus. Kitchen staffs often include several cooks, sometimes called assistant or apprentice cooks, and many kitchen helpers. Each cook usually has a special assignment, such as pastries, salads, or sauces. Although the terms cook and chef are often used interchangeably, the professional chef generally has much more training and experience.

Cooks and chefs must be able to work as part of a team and withstand the pressure of working in close quarters during busy periods. A keen sense of taste, the stamina to stand for hours at a time, and personal cleanliness are also important qualifications.

Most entrants to this ocupation have not been working; they are usually students, homemakers, and those who have become unemployed from other kinds of jobs. The majority are 25 or younger and have a high school education or less. Other entrants transfer from other occupations–primarily dishwashers, waiters and waitresses, and other food service workers. Applicants for jobs in large restaurants and hotels generally need years of experience or formal training in commercial food preparation.

Average annual earnings of full-time cooks and chefs, except short order, were $10,600 in 1984. Wages vary depending on the part of the country and, especially, the type of establishment. Short-order cooks in fast-food restaurants may be paid no more than the minimum wage. Chefs in restaurants with national reputations earn $40,000 or more a year. Cooks usually receive free meals and uniforms.

About two-fifths of all cooks work part time, a larger proportion than in most occupations. Working conditions largely depend on the type of restaurant. Hours may include late evening, holiday, and weekend work. In most kitchens, cooks must stand most of the time, work near hot ovens, and lift heavy pots.

Advancement opportunities for cooks are better than for most other food service occupations. Many acquire higher paying positions by moving from one operation to another. Others gradually advance to chef or supervisory positions, and some may eventually open their own restaurants. Many people, however, accept jobs as cooks to earn supplemental income rather than to begin a career.

Cooks and chefs held over 1.2 million jobs in 1982. Over one-half worked in restaurants; other employers were schools, hotels, and hospitals. Job openings are expected to be plentiful. Thousands of jobs become available each year as cooks leave the occupation or stop working. In addition, employemnt is expected to increase faster than the average for all occupations through the mid-1990’s as increasing demand for cooks and chefs results in many additional openings.

Waiters and Waitresses

Whether they work in small, informal diners or large, fancy restaurants, all waiters and waitresses have jobs that are essentially the same. They take customers’ orders, serve food and beverages, make out checks, and sometimes take payments. The manner in which they go about their work may vary considerably, however, depending on the type of restaurant. For example, some must serve food very rapidly, while for others speed is less important. Waiters and waitresses may perform additional duties, such as setting up and clearing tables.

Employers seek people who have a pleasant personality, an even disposition, and a neat and clean appearance. Physical stamina is necessary since waiters and waitresses are on their feet for hours at a time. Waiters and waitresses should also be good at arithmetic.

Most people who enter the occupation have not been working, although some advance from a related job such as waiter’s assistant or food counter worker. About 7 openings out of 10 are filled by people under the age of 25. Expensive restaurants usually hire only experienced waiters and waitresses.

Most waiters and waitresses pick up their skills on the job, learning to set tables, take orders, and serve food courteously and efficiently.

In 1984, average annual earnings excluding tips of full-time waiters and waitresses were $9,400. For many waiters and waitresses, tips are greater than wages. Most receive meals at work, and many are furnished with uniforms.

Working conditions vary with the type of restaurant to some extent. Most waiters and waitresses, however, are expected to work on holidays and weekends. Some work split shifts–that is, they work for several hours during the middle of the day, take a few hours off, and then return to their jobs for the evening. The wide range of dining hours creates a good opportunity for flexible part-time work schedules; 3 out of 5 waiters and waitresses work less than 35 hours a week. Vacation resorts offer seasonal employment; some waiters and waitresses alternate between summer and winter resorts instead of remaining in one area the entire year.

Opportunities for promotion are limited, due to the small size of most food-serving establishments. After gaining some experience, however, a waiter or waitress may transfer to a larger restaurant where earnings and prospects for advancement are better. Advancement can be to supervisory jobs, such as host or hostess, maitre d’hotel, or dining room supervisor. Some supervisory workers advance to jobs as restaurant managers. For many people, however, a job as a waiter or waitress serves as a source of immediate income rather than a career.

Waiters and waitresses held 1.8 million jobs in 1982, mostly in restaurants, although hotels and social clubs also employ these workers.

Job openings for waiters and waitresses are expected to be plentiful through the mid-1990s. Turnover is very high in this field, which creates thousands of openings each year. Increased demand for these workers is expected to create an additional half million jobs through 1995.

Photo: Chart 1.

Industries within retail trade vary widely in earnings . . .

. . . in the proportion of teenage workers . . .

. . . and in the proportion of part-timers.

Photo: Chart 2. More than half of all retail trade workers are in just 10 occupations.

COPYRIGHT 1985 U.S. Government Printing Office

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