Institute on Education and the Economy


Supermarket Employment: Good Jobs at Good Wages?
(Working Paper No. 11, April 1999)

Katherine L. Hughes

As the service sector has come to account for most U.S. employment, researchers are asking whether service jobs can provide the livable wages and security that manufacturing jobs have in the past, particularly for workers without post-secondary education. This paper addresses that question by presenting a case study of a unionized supermarket firm, supplemented with industry data. The findings are that the supermarket industry has changed in the past several decades: while it once provided full-time, well-paid jobs, the majority of workers now hold part-time, low-wage positions. This change is due to increased competition and de-unionization within the industry. Our case study firm has followed the industry trends in several ways: while jobs at this firm can offer long-term wage growth and job security, entry-level wages have eroded and the use of part-time workers has increased. However, the firm stands out in some positive ways: it is an industry leader with regard to technology and training. Most significantly, the firm is unique in having a structured management trainee program, for which there are no educational qualifications. This program represents an important mobility opportunity. Yet in the industry as a whole, and in this firm in particular, there is a conflict between management concerns about recruiting good labor, and employee perceptions of the quality of the jobs and career opportunities.

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