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Up to 7 million jobs representing 47% of the retail workforce could be replaced by automation within 10 years according to a study conducted by Cornerstone Capital Group. Hardest hit will be easily automated jobs such as cashier.

On the flip side, highly skilled workers stand to find themselves relieved of mundane jobs and even making higher wages. What would help most is retraining. Except for a few companies like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE:WMTB), few retailers are offering this type of retraining to their employees.


Not A Top Priority

Retail is undergoing a metamorphosis. Competition between bricks and mortar chains like Wal-Mart, Target Corp. (NYSE:TGTB) and others and e-commerce giants like Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZNC) have changed the battlefield dramatically. Omni channel integration of various ways for people to shop including in store, online, on the phone and so forth call for specialists who understand both technology and retail.

And yet retraining of employees who already know the sales side is not a priority in most companies. The result, as stores close and large companies use more technology to push sales is “job displacement.” In short, workers are being laid off. In 2017 alone hundreds of stores have closed and 9 U.S. chains have filed for bankruptcy – with more to come.

Unique Problems

Compared with, for example, manufacturing, retail workers tend to be lower-skilled and in many cases not economically able to take advantage of the retraining programs that already exist. Given the fact retail tends to pay low wages, the incentive to get more training is not there unless workers believe the retraining will substantially increase their income.

In addition, the majority of retail workers are younger and don’t intend to make a career in retail – again mostly due to low pay. Manufacturing workers tended to live in the communities where they worked providing further incentive to gain additional training that would allow them to stay put. Retail workers tend to be more dispersed geographically and are not as loyal to an area to begin with.


Another Solution: Taxing Robots

None other than Bill Gates has proposed taxing technology as a way to slow the acceptance of automation. In Gates’ proposal, robots or automated workers would pay taxes (actually the company employing them would) and those taxes could be used to finance training and jobs in areas where robots are not well suited – working with the elderly or working with children in schools.

Critics suggest taxing robotic workers would only stifle the creation of technology that could improve the quality of our lives. The critics point out that there is no proof taxing technology would protect human workers. These critics call for a massive expansion of public-private training and retraining programs to fill the gap and prepare workers for an automated workplace.

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