CHECKING OUT

Walmart is eliminating white-collar positions, and that means every job is under threat

Obsession
The Office
Obsession
The Office

Add retail accounting jobs to the list of occupations under threat from machines.

Walmart is eliminating about 7,000 back-office positions at its stores, with the jobs either being centralized or automated, The Wall Street Journal reported (paywall). The employees, among the highest paid in its stores, tally the day’s receipts or manage invoices from suppliers. The desk jobs are highly sought after because workers didn’t have to be on their feet in the stores; now, many of those employees will be asked to go back out to the sales floor as associates to help customers.

The company tested the changes in about 500 US stores and plans to roll them out to all 4,600 over the next few months.

While the position is a tiny fraction of the company’s 1.2 million US jobs, their loss is a blow to Walmart employees hoping to make a career at the retailing goliath and eager to advance beyond the meager pay of associates. Back office workers are paid as much as $15 an hour, still a pittance but better than the $9 an hour starting pay. Charles Crowson, a Walmart spokesman, said there are still opportunities for advancement. “Upward mobility is always a possibility at Walmart,” Crowson told Quartz.

The move toward increased automation should send shivers down the spines of office workers everywhere. There are 21 million Americans in clerical jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and a great many of those positions are vulnerable to automation of some kind. Bank tellers have been replaced by ATMs, and travel agents have disappeared as passengers book online. Robots are writing sports and business articles, while drones and automated driving may soon threaten trucking.

In a 2013 paper, two Oxford professors considered 702 different occupations and used an algorithm to rank them by how susceptible they were to automation. They concluded that 47% of total US employment was at risk. Among the most endangered positions were clerks of all sorts, as well as occupations as diverse as loan officers and watch repairers. Safe occupations included highly skilled professions like doctors, or ones that demand human interaction, like teachers.

Sales positions were also ranked as relatively safe, which may come as small comfort to the former Walmart clerks back on the shop floor.

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