Yes, there are millions of jobs at retail stores, restaurants, call centers, hotels, and day cares — but most of them are lousy and have been for decades. They offer low pay, few benefits, and no career paths. Conventional wisdom holds that bad jobs are the unavoidable price of low-cost service. They are not — and some companies are realizing that the way they run their operations, including treating their employees as replaceable commodities, is not sustainable. In the past three years large companies including Walmart, McDonald’s, GAP, and Aetna have raised wages. Walmart is investing more in training and is streamlining operations to help store workers be more productive. GAP is experimenting with more-predictable schedules. And Aetna is letting call center reps use more discretion to meet customer needs.
Together these moves may herald a radical shift. Why are companies investing in and empowering their workers after treating them so poorly for so long? Largely because of a new competitive landscape. Companies in saturated markets need more growth from their existing units. Those facing increased competition from brick-and-mortar and online rivals need to give customers a compelling reason to buy from them. And companies are realizing that engaged workers are more productive, provide better service, and are less likely to jump ship — an especially big deal in retail and restaurants, where turnover in 2016 averaged 65% and 73% respectively.