WASHINGTON — For years, many Americans followed a simple career path: Land an entry-level job. Accept a modest wage. Gain skills. Leave eventually for a better-paying job.
The workers benefited, and so did lower-wage retailers such as Wal-Mart: When its staffers left for better-paying jobs, they could spend more at its stores. And the U.S. economy gained, too, because more consumer spending fueled growth.
Not so much anymore. Since the Great Recession began in late 2007, that path has narrowed because many of the next-tier jobs no longer exist. That means more lower-wage workers have to stay put. The resulting bottleneck is helping widen a gap between the richest Americans and everyone else.
“Some people took those jobs because they were the only ones available and haven’t been able to figure out how to move out of that,” Bill Simon, CEO of Wal-Mart U.S., acknowledged in an interview with The Associated Press.
If Wal-Mart employees “can go to another company and another job and make more money and develop, they’ll be better,” Simon explained. “It’ll be better for the economy. It’ll be better for us as a business, to be quite honest, because they’ll continue to advance in their economic life.”
Yet for now, the lower-wage jobs once seen as stepping stones are increasingly being held for longer periods by older, better-educated, more experienced workers.
The trend extends well beyond Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest employer, and is reverberating across the U.S. economy.
Research shows that occupations that once helped elevate people from the minimum wage into the middle class have disappeared during the past three recessions dating to 1991.
That leaves many workers remaining in jobs as cashiers earning an average of $9.79 an hour, or in retail sales at roughly $10.50 — jobs that used to be entry points to higher-paying work. Hourly pay at Wal-Mart averages $8.90, according to the site Glassdoor.com. (Wal-Mart disputes that figure; it says its pay for hourly workers averages $11.83.)
Since the Great Recession began, the share of U.S workers employed by the retail and restaurant sector has risen from 16.5 percent to 17.1 percent.
“It really has contributed to this widening of inequality,” Siu said.
They are people like Richard Wilson, 27, in Chicago. More than 2½ years ago, a Wal-Mart store manager spotted Wilson cleaning the cafeteria at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.
A double major in biblical studies and business communications, Wilson had $3,000 in tuition due and had maxed out on student loans. He said the recruiter suggested that a management job could eventually be within reach for him because, “Wal-Mart is where people’s dreams become a reality.”
Today, Wilson earns $9.45 an hour at that Wal-Mart and lives on the city’s western edge with his grandmother. He boards a bus most mornings at 3:30 a.m. and arrives for his 5 a.m. shift in the more upscale neighborhood of Lakeview East. He has applied for promotions. So far, no success.