Walmart Layoffs: Troubling Signs For White Collar Workers

White collar workers faced layoffs at Lehman Brothers in 2008, and now they face them at Walmart

White collar workers faced layoffs at Lehman Brothers in 2008, and now they face them at Walmart | Cate Gillon/Getty Images

Redundancy and layoffs are typically worries for low-wage, blue-collar workers — at least these days. Technology and automation are creeping into the picture, and that has millions of workers on edge about the future of their jobs. But white-collar workers haven’t experienced the same anxieties, at least not to the same extent. Sure, white-collar employees face layoffs as well, but they’re typically less expendable and have a bit more job security.

That may be changing, however, as some of the nation’s largest employers are starting to cut back not only on low-skilled workers but on those in the professional class as well. That is, it’s not only cashiers that may be on the chopping block. Accountants could be next.

They are next, in fact.

For proof, you need to look no further than America’s largest private employer, Walmart. The company recently announced the layoffs of 7,000 back-office employees, mostly those working in accounting and invoicing. These jobs will now be handed off to automation systems, which Walmart had been experimenting with in several hundred of its stores prior to deciding to make the call.

Walmart did say that the fired employees would have chances to remain with the company in other capacities.

Walmart layoffs

A woman at a closed Walmart trying to make sense of it all

A woman at a closed Walmart trying to make sense of it all | Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

7,000 employees being fired by the nation’s largest private employer isn’t that big of a deal, really. The company has earned a reputation for being an adversary of the working man, in many respects, and has had little trouble closing entire stores on a whim due to talk of unionization, or other perceived dangers to its business model.

Wal-Mart says the move is being made in an effort to expend more resources in its stores themselves. Walmart has earned itself a reputation with American consumers, and though millions love shopping there, a large contingency also avoids its stores for a number of reasons. Facing increased competition from online options — Amazon, mostly — Walmart execs are trying to make their stores more pleasant to shop in, to lure consumers away from their computers and into brick-and-mortar locations.

With that comes a cut down on back-office staff, or those who aren’t helping them achieve that goal. This, from what is being reported, anyway.

This is more or less standard fare for a changing economy, though. Jobs are created and destroyed when new technologies or businesses are created. But it can’t or shouldn’t sit well with workers who felt that they had job security.

White collar jobs on the chopping block?

A white collar worker receives a rude notice regarding layoffs

A white collar worker receives a rude notice regarding layoffs | iStock.com

Let’s not lose perspective; we’re only talking about 7,000 jobs. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not an awful lot. But we’re not used to hearing about accountants or office workers getting the boot because they’ve been replaced by computers or technology — that’s something usually associated with fast food workers, or taxi drivers. Should white collar workers be worried?

Kind of. Sooner or later just about everything you can imagine will be automated to some degree. There are numerous jobs and industries that will soon be handed over to technologies, like long-haul trucking, for example. It’ll be a painful process, but people will find other jobs and other things to do. But the big difference here is that specialized skills — like those done by many white collar workers — are also being made redundant by technology.

It’s making the future seem a lot scarier, rather than awesome, for people who aren’t holding patents or intellectual property rights. How is one supposed to make a living in a future where human labor is widely unneeded? That, of course, is a bit hyperbolic, but it’s a conversation that needs to start somewhere.

The best option may be to just suck out as much wealth from the system as possible and run — as the folks running for-profit education company ITT Tech recently did.

The key is to stay ahead of the game and know what skills are going to be in demand in the future. You’ve heard it before, but here it is again: Learn a skill — a skill that commands value. As anyone can tell you these days, even a college degree isn’t going to get you much unless you can do something with it.

Your job — whether you’re a blue collar worker or from the professional class — will always be in jeopardy. Sometimes, like in the case of the recent Walmart announcements, those threats can come as a surprise.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Sliceofginger and Facebook

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