How can California help laid-off retail workers find jobs? This state’s approach may work

Jeong Park | Sacramento Bee

The COVID-19 pandemic was one for the record books for the retail industry.

More than 40 major retailers declared bankruptcy, and more than 11,000 stores closed in 2020 across the U.S., according to CoStar Group. A transition to online shopping accelerated, leaving millions of retail workers in the country wondering whether they will have their jobs back when the pandemic subsides.

Prior to the pandemic, California projected it would shed nearly 39,000 jobs in department stores by 2028, as well as nearly 28,000 jobs in clothing and accessories stores. Those projections, made in 2018, don’t account for the retail bloodbath that fell in 2020, when companies from Fry’s Electronics to Stein Mart closed most, if not all, of their stores.

Those have states and nonprofit organizations building new programs designed to help former retail workers find new, better-paying careers.

One in Wisconsin has used a $2 million grant from the federal government to help laid-off retail workers get better jobs by providing them money to make ends meet while they’re looking for work. Each worker can get up to $30,000 – $15,000 for training, and $15,000 for supportive services from rent to childcare.

About 400 people received the grants, so far. They used the money – which on average was double what they would get in a normal job training program – to take the time off necessary to train for better jobs, Wisconsin program leaders said.

Wisconsin’s program can be a model for how the Golden State can better help its retail workers transition to other careers that have better pay and working conditions, especially after the coronavirus pandemic, said Paige Shevlin, director of policy and national initiatives at the Markle Foundation which aims to move workers into good jobs.

“An entry-level retail job may not pay a lot of money, but it has very similar skills to some customer service sales rep job in manufacturing and wholesale,” Shevlin said. “How can we think about helping people transition those fundamental skills to industries where there is more demand?”

Shift in the Retail Sector

With low wages and schedules that can change with little notice, retail workers have a hard time accessing job training programs, said Frieda Molina, director of economic mobility, housing and communities at MDRC, a research organization.

“If you have dependents, it becomes almost a vicious cycle,” Molina said. “it’s hard to get out of that.”

More than 6,500 Wisconsin retail workers were laid off between February 2017 and August 2018, said Kara Leffelman, a program analyst at the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. Just months after the state got the grant, a major department store based in Wisconsin went bankrupt, laying off more than 2,200 workers.

“We know people who get laid off from retail would jump to another retail job,” said Jane Spencer, executive director at the North Central Wisconsin Workforce Development Board. “What we are trying to look at is those industries with long-term jobs.”

Wisconsin required participants to be in a program that would train them for in-demand industries and sectors, such as healthcare, Leffelman said. Participants in and around Madison had a workshop, where they met with a major healthcare employer to see how their retail skills can transfer to its customer service jobs, said Jackie Hall, communications director at the Workforce Development Board of South Central Wisconsin.

The program also offered enough money for participants like Viktoryia Melnik to get a two-year degree.

Melnik came to Wisconsin in 2014 from Belarus, where she had worked as an accountant. But with the language barrier, she couldn’t get an accounting job, so she worked at a department store for three years before her shop closed in 2018.

“Today you can work in the morning. Tomorrow you can work in the evening,” said Melnik, who lives in Madison. “When you’re working all the time and you don’t know how to get a different job…You don’t know how to build a resume for an office job.”

Hall’s staff reached Melnik at her store before it closed. That led Melnik to apply for the program, which gave her a $16,000 grant to get a two-year degree in accounting. The grant covers everything from tuition to transportation, Melnik said. Together with a part-time job she got with the help of Hall’s staff, Melnik will get her associate’s degree in May, debt-free.

“I feel like I have a future,” she said. “My kids have a future because right now, I have good professional skills.”

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