Wal-Mart and Academia, Redux

Groucho Marx, writing at the anti-Wal-Mart blog “The Writing On The Wal,” takes exception to my TCS piece on the similarities between the hiring situations at Wal-Mart and academe.

I should start with a disclaimer: The submitted title of the piece was “Wal-Mart Economics” rather than the editors’ choice, “How Wal-Mart is Like Academia.” The latter is sexier but the former more accurately reflects the tone of the article.

Regardless, my piece argues that the two are similar in precisely two ways–the high ratio of applicants for each opening and the substitution of part time for full time labor–as a way of saying they (and all other vocations) are alike in a more important way: Market forces dictate the wages and working conditions for those jobs.

Mr. Marx notes that there are actually some ways in which cashiers at Wal-Mart and college professors are different:

What Mr. Joyner fails to note is that the turnover rate of Wal-Mart workers is at least 45% [Charles Fishman, in The Wal-Mart Effect, cites evidence that it may be as high as 60%]. The voluntary turnover rate of tenure-track academics has got to be close to zero. After all, very few of us want our excessive schooling to go for naught. We accept the bureaucracy and the paperwork and the high teaching loads because we like what we do, not because it’s the only job out there for us.

In the interests of full disclousure, I also failed to note that professors don’t wear blue smocks.

In fact, however, I made exactly that point (about the turnover rate, not the smocks) indirectly in the penultimate paragraph:

[A]s economist Thomas Sowell explains, people who take low paying jobs gain valuable skills that they can translate into higher paying jobs. “Notions of menial jobs and dead-end jobs may be just shallow misconceptions among the intelligentsia but they are a deadly counterproductive message to the poor. Refusing to get on the bottom rung of the ladder usually means losing your chance to move up the ladder.”

The reason for the high turnover rate among lower-level Wal-Mart employees is that they’re using their entry level jobs at Wal-Mart to get better jobs elsewhere. I don’t know about Mr. Marx but I think that’s a very good thing. I don’t want people to make careers out of unpacking boxes and ringing up purchases.

Marx continues,

Perhaps more importantly, after all that graduate school, we have a very good idea of what we are getting ourselves into job-wise. The “lucky” Wal-Mart workers interviewed in the Chicago Tribune don’t work there yet. Therefore, they haven’t the faintest idea what kind of employer Wal-Mart is. To claim that 24,500 applicants proves that Wal-Mart jobs aren’t that bad is like me telling my wife that childbirth is easy. Nobody can judge it until they try it themselves. When Wal-Mart starts bragging about having to replace 500,000 employees every year, then we’ll have an honest portrait of what it’s like to work there.

I have exactly zero years’ experience working as a low-level retail employee. However, based on casual observation, I would posit the following: The job offers meager pay, no autonomy, little prestige, and is physically exhausting. In sum, it frickin’ sucks.

The point, however, of my article is that it sucks less than whatever those 25,000 people applying for those 325 openings are doing now.

And, at the risk of repeating myself, most of those 500,000 people that Wal-Mart is replacing every year are leaving for jobs that suck less than their jobs at Wal-Mart. (Which, you may recall from earlier, sucked less than whatever they were doing before they started working at Wal-Mart.)

Now, the astute among you–or Mr. Marx–might be asking yourself, “But why don’t those people just skip right over that sucky job at Wal-Mart and go for that less sucky job to begin with?”

Good question! I’m glad you asked.

It’s because, prior to gaining some valuable experience–including demonstrating that they could show up for work more-or-less on time, take instructions from supervisors, get along with co-workers, and other mundane tasks of workaday life–they would not have been competitive for their post-Wal-Mart positions.

So, to reiterate:

  • There are ways in which academic and retail jobs are similar as well as ways in which they are different.
  • Low level retail jobs at Wal-Mart are less desirable than many jobs but more desirable than some jobs–or no job.
  • Undesirable jobs are often a gateway to more desirable jobs. And food.

This all reminds me of the classic sketch from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” which I reproduce in the extended entry.

REG: They’ve bled us white, the bastards. They’ve taken everything we had, and not just from us, from our fathers, and from our fathers’ fathers.

LORETTA: And from our fathers’ fathers’ fathers.

REG: Yeah.

LORETTA: And from our fathers’ fathers’ fathers’ fathers.

REG: Yeah. All right, Stan. Don’t labour the point. And what have they ever given us in return?!

XERXES: The aquaduct?

REG: What?

XERXES: The aquaduct

REG: Oh. Yeah, yeah. They did give us that. Uh, that’s true. Yeah.

COMMANDO #3: And the sanitation.

LORETTA: Oh, yeah, the sanitation, Reg. Remember what the city used to be like?

REG: Yeah. All right. I’ll grant you the aqueduct and the sanitation are two things that the Romans have done.

MATTHIAS: And the roads.

REG: Well, yeah. Obviously the roads. I mean, the roads go without saying, don’t they? But apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct, and the roads–

COMMANDO: Irrigation.

XERXES: Medicine.

COMMANDOS: Huh? Heh? Huh…

COMMANDO #2: Education.


REG: Yeah, yeah. All right. Fair enough.

COMMANDO #1: And the wine.

COMMANDOS: Oh, yes. Yeah…

FRANCIS: Yeah. Yeah, that’s something we’d really miss, Reg, if the Romans left. Huh.

COMMANDO: Public baths.

LORETTA: And it’s safe to walk in the streets at night now, Reg.

FRANCIS: Yeah, they certainly know how to keep order. Let’s face it. They’re the only ones who could in a place like this.

COMMANDOS: Hehh, heh. Heh heh heh heh heh heh heh.

REG: All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

XERXES: Brought peace.

REG: Oh. Peace? Shut up!

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Education, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Well, for the record, I’ve both worked for Wal-Mart and worked as an academic.

    The Wal-Mart job sucked, but it did pay off my credit card debt and it paid better than any of the other retail jobs I had in college. And, in the grand scheme of things, most jobs suck. The working conditions at Barnes and Noble were slightly better (mainly because BN’s aesthetics are a bit upscale from Wal-Mart’s), but the pay and benefits were worse, the dress code was more expensive, you were expected to know more (Wal-Mart at least had paid training for what you did need to know, while the answers to customers’ obscure book queries weren’t in any manual I could find), and shelving books is pretty damn boring work.

    And, unlike academe, nobody should be making a career out of working at Wal-Mart, for the reasons you articulate. With the exception of management, I’m pretty sure nobody does. Most everyone I knew there was in school part-time or full-time, which they couldn’t have done without the income.

  2. Steve Verdon says:

    And, in the grand scheme of things, most jobs suck.

    Maybe this is why they call it work. After all if was fun and exciting, it would be called ‘fun’ and not ‘work’.

    James, it seems it is “Answer the Obvious Questions Day” here at OTB.

  3. kimsch says:

    It’s amazing to me how they always cite Wal-Mart, and Wal-Mart alone as bad instead of the entire retail industry. Does a part-time job at Victoria’s Secret provide healthcare and retirement benefits? Or The Gap, or Old Navy, or any other mall store?

    The unions don’t seem to be fighting to have all those jobs unionized…

  4. John Brennan says:

    I haven’t read your article on TCS in great detail because of a glaring error in economic concepts right from the beginning. You call the labor market for professors “tight” when in actual economic terms it is “loose.” In a “tight” market job seekers are price makers–the unemployment rate in that industry is quite low and a growing economy enables the job seeker to pick and choose as he or she pleases. I know that you are a political scientist, but you are writing on a web site devoted largely to economic issues. You and your web site managers should try to get the basics right.

  5. Mark says:

    Does a part-time job at Victoria’s Secret provide healthcare and retirement benefits?

    My mom worked part time for about 6 months at a department store, and they got no benefits at all.

  6. Just Me says:

    Another difference-most people working in Academia want full time jobs.

    Many of the part timers at Wal-mart and similar retail places want part time jobs, because they are often students who don’t intend to make their retail job their career. I worked retail all through high school and college-the vast majority of people I worked with were part timers, because they didn’t want more than 20 or so hours a week. I worked 20 hours a week-because that was all I needed.

    And I have to agree that anyone viewing their job as a cashier or stocker as the height of their employment goals is pretty sad-those jobs are entry level.

    My husband managed a grocery store while completing his college and masters degrees. About half the employees were high school or college students. A hard working employee willing to move around the stores within a district could easily be in management within the first year or so of employment. One of the guys who worked stock crew for my husband had a full time job elsewhere (union at that) and worked at the grocery for extra income. My husband begged him to come on full time and go into management (it took the guy a couple of years and a royal screwing by his union, but he did come on). Its been about 4 years now, and he is a district supervisor within the company and doesn’t need a second job to keep his family fed.

  7. Emil Chuck says:

    I really found your article and followup rather interesting, especially as a person in academia who sees the growth of postdoctoral/adjunct positions as creating a new academic working class. Many of these full-time postdoctoral workers (especially in the sciences) are working on independent grant funding without any benefits or even institutional support. The economics are a bit different in this case, but there are many who even with Ph.D.’s cannot afford to take care of their families. It’s quite an interesting situation that academe is really supporting the growth of these non-tenure-track positions; I don’t think academics aspired to these types of “full time jobs” at all.

  8. G A PHILLIPS says:

    Dang James, another evil conservative hatespeachmonger who quotes Monty Python. What’s the world comming to. Nudgenudge, winkwink, know what I mean?

  9. djneylon says:

    Having worked retail of various types (shoe sales, major department store, building materials, furniture), let me share my experience. Some people do make a living in retail outside management ranks. The income proves adequate for them (that’s their call to make, not ours). All but the shoe stores provided some level of benefits; of course since I was part time at the shoe stores and full time at the others, that could be one reason. None of the jobs were bad (although the Al Bundy jokes wore thin when selling shoes). If my current stiuation were different, I would consider going back to them (frankly, my pay at some of those jobs was not much lower than my current federal government job). What every one of those jobs did woas provide income that wasn’t otherwise available. It is very nice for union leaders, social activist and academians who already have jobs to preach against low pay jobs, but frankly, I’d rather get low pay than no pay (been there, done that). And, just as a thought, how much more would they be willing to pay for things to make retail jobs better paying?

  10. Don Surber says:

    I’m curious, when I buy a pair of undershorts, why should I pay the middleman a huge salary, a huge pension and provide health benefits that I do not enjoy?
    Wal Mart is a middle man. It manufactures nothing. It stocks stuff and keeps its prices low. Having come of age during the 70s stagflation, I appreciate that.

    “There are ways in which academic and retail jobs are similar as well as ways in which they are different.
    “Low level retail jobs at Wal-Mart are less desirable than many jobs but more desirable than some jobs–or no job.
    “Undesirable jobs are often a gateway to more desirable jobs. And food.”

    You got it

  11. floyd says:

    wal mart provides nothing! wal mart”s people provide the products: that’s workers and managers. so why are salaries earned and wages considered theft of profit?

  12. ICallMasICM says:

    ‘I have exactly zero years’ experience working as a low-level retail employee. However, based on casual observation, I would posit the following: The job offers meager pay, no autonomy, little prestige, and is physically exhausting. In sum, it frickin’ sucks. ‘

    Not really, some are good, some not so good. I worked a lot of different low wage jobs, not at Wal-Mart but some in retail and a lot in food service. Retail’s better than food service IMHO. I never would have made it thru college without some of these jobs. The no autonomy and little prestige seems to be dependent on the specific job and in comparison to what? I can say without doubt that I’ve been treated better at some low wage jobs than at some of the biggest financial institutions in the world. I’m not one for saying ‘everyone should have to do this in life’ but if I did the one suggestion I would make is that everyone should have to have a job serving the public because they’ll learn more about people in 6 months than they would in 4 years of college or just about anywhere else.

  13. Jon Swenson says:

    Academia exploits its students in RA and TA as well as the post-doc positions.
    Why do they put up with it? Jobs in industry or maybe a cushy tenure track position.