STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Many retail workers are going through job displacement. That euphemism means that broad changes in the economy caused your job to be eliminated. Layoffs in traditional retail have accelerated sharply this year. Store closings and bankruptcies are expected to continue as the Internet hammers stores.
Retail firms will need more labor in the future - high-skilled labor - but companies have not invested much in retraining for new times. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: For 35 years, Harry Friedman has run a Lenexa, Kansas-based consultancy that trains entry-level retail workers in customer service and other basics. I asked him whether he also retrains laid-off retail workers for new skills.
HARRY FRIEDMAN: No, we do none of it. I don't know that anybody does any of it.
NOGUCHI: He says training, in general, is not a top priority for most retailers, making things tough on his business.
FRIEDMAN: It's like owning a film processing store or a travel agency. (Laughter). It's kind of tough.
NOGUCHI: Retail is increasingly what experts call omnichannel, meaning most retailers sell through a hybrid of online and traditional stores. Just as manufacturing jobs evolved to incorporate more computing, retails hiring needs are mostly on the e-commerce side, jobs in areas such as warehousing, logistics and technology.
The National Retail Federation says to better equip people for those new jobs, it launched a training and certification program for workers. Maureen Conway is skeptical that will work. Conway is executive director of the Economic Opportunities Program at The Aspen Institute and notes the industry backed a similar certification program over a decade ago.
MAUREEN CONWAY: Unfortunately, it didn't seem that retail employers valued somebody who had the certificate versus somebody who didn't.
NOGUCHI: The challenges to retraining in retail are myriad. Frieda Molina is deputy director of MDRC, a social research group. She says many workers simply aren't interested.
FRIEDA MOLINA: It's hard to make that case to them given the sort of more negative reputation of retail and the fact that many people at that lower level don't have the resources to be able to invest time and effort and lost wages, potentially, in getting additional training.
NOGUCHI: Kathryn Shaw, a professor at Stanford Business School, says there's a basic question of the payoff. In manufacturing, there were government programs to support retraining, and the industry wages were pretty high. The same dynamics don't exist in retail.
KATHRYN SHAW: Coal mining is very vocal. Manufacturing is vocal. Retail is a very dispersed, diffuse group, not unionized. And therefore, they're going to be less vocal.
NOGUCHI: Still, some retailers see a business need to invest in retraining. Two years ago, Walmart started an academy that trains about a quarter of a million of its employees a year, while they work in more advanced skills. Kathleen McLaughlin, chief sustainability officer for Walmart, says the training for both in-store and online operations have paid off in higher comparable store sales and improved customer service marks.
KATHLEEN MCLAUGHLIN: It is very economic for retailers to invest in their people at all levels.
NOGUCHI: McLaughlin says Walmart is trying to partner with other large retailers to develop industry-wide training standards.
MCLAUGHLIN: Retailers do need to take a look at their people and create paths for them that are exciting and provide the skills needed to succeed, not only the jobs of today but as these jobs continue to evolve.
NOGUCHI: These new workforce demands will eventually affect every retailer, she says. So everyone should have a stake in retraining. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF D.P. KAUFMAN'S "BRAVERY")