Wal-Mart and Academia, Redux
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.
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.
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?
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–
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!