America's most common job: Retail salesperson

4.3 million people don a big-box store vest -- and make the $25,000 that goes along with it, if they're lucky enough to land the gig.

By Jason Notte Apr 1, 2013 2:33PM
Image: Paint store (© Tom Grill/Corbis)If you're looking for the face of American labor, head down to your nearest big-box retailer and look for a person in a brightly colored vest.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics announced Friday that as of last May, the American retail salespeople at Wal-Mart (WMT), Target (TGT), Home Depot (HD), Lowe's (LOW) and elsewhere have the most common job in the country. Nationwide, 4.3 million retail salespeople are making an average of $25,000, or well below the annual mean wage of $45,790.

As The Atlantic astutely notes, America has more retail salespeople than Kentucky has citizens. It's also enough retail sales jobs to employ every man, woman and child in Wyoming, Vermont, Washington, D.C., North Dakota, Alaska and South Dakota combined. That's not necessarily surprising in an economy in which roughly 65% of the 5.7 million jobs added since the recession have been low wage.

It's even less surprising to the 3.3 million cashiers who hold American's No. 2 job and work alongside those retail salespeople each day. To register workers making little more than $20,000 a year, retail salesperson is not only a position worth aspiring to but perhaps their only escape from being squeezed out by self-checkout and other new technology.

While larger retailers have no problem absorbing the growing number of low-wage workers, small businesses have told The Wall Street Journal that any slight uptick in labor costs -- including the minimum wage -- could prompt them to replace their counter help with tablets and software. Food vendors, for example, view cashiers as an unnecessary link in the supply chain that could be replaced easily by a touchscreen device that takes orders and accepts payment through services like Square.

Still, even if cashiers make the leap to retail salesperson and slightly better wages, their outlook remains bleak. The 2.9 million folks employed as food-service workers in the nation's No. 3 job are seeing their hours cut by employers concerned about health care costs. Plus, The Journal reports, their jobs are also being targeted by touchscreen software developers and $22,000 automated burger flippers.

Should low-wage workers land one of the 527,000 jobs the Labor Department says the retail industry has created since the end of the recession, competition for those gigs is fierce. Workers with a high school education or less who once populated retail positions are being pushed aside by college graduates. The Center For College Affordability and Productivity reported that nearly half of the college graduates from the Class of 2010 are working in jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree. A full 38% have taken positions that don't require a high school education. According to The Associated Press, that has dropped the median wage for college graduates significantly since 2000.

That leaves us with the modern symbol of American labor: An overeducated, overqualified person in a vest pointing Rosie the Riveter and the cubicle drones from "Office Space" to the gardening section.

More on moneyNOW

Apr 1, 2013 3:30PM
Add up all of those different workers and you get 10.5 million people earning $25k or less per year.  They will pay zero or next to nothing in federal income taxes due to their earnings, but will likely need housing assistance and food stamps to make ends meet.  Those jobs just will NOT grow our economy and reduce the Federal Budget Deficit.  We need manufacturing jobs that pay livable (read TAXABLE) wages to come back to the US.  Until that happens, our nation won't be able to grow and prosper.  Let's fix the tax code to encourage the growth of domestic jobs that actually support families.
What is not mentioned in the article, a half hour trip to the dentist will take a weeks wages. A ten minute doctor appointment, will take a half a weeks wages. Bottom line, is we cannot compete in a worldwide economy, with our high health care costs.
Apr 1, 2013 3:54PM
Hahaha, WHAT!?  25k my behind.  I am in retail and I barely make a third of that.  And yes, I do have a master's degree, but I cannot find a job in my preferred career.  So I guess I am the underpaid, overqualified sales associate.
Apr 1, 2013 4:39PM
Wrong, the most common job in America are the 40 Million sitting on their butts collecting food stamps.
Apr 1, 2013 4:53PM
Let's face the facts. The better higher paying jobs that were in this country are manufacturing jobs and high techie jobs. The manufacturing sector is all but gone in this country. China, Japan and India have taken over all the manufacturing jobs for cheap labor. The only other good paying jobs in this country is if you own your business (which isn't likely), or work in high paying office type jobs like the tech industry. The big corporations that are left are now starting to slowly get rid of their great benefits, great pay and good jobs. It's only a matter of time before the middle class is gone. We are headed for a Communistic/Socialistic society where their are very few rich people who own everything and every one else who is basically working minimum wage jobs and probably getting government welfare at the same time (which will make the transition happen even faster to a welfare state). With the population increasing every year and a non-stop insurgence of immigrants coming into the country, some of us might want to consider moving to another country within the next 20 years.
Apr 1, 2013 6:17PM
These jobs were meant for students, not for a lifelong career. Since there are no longer any manufacturing jobs in the US for the non college educated, they have gravitated to these jobs. In my day, retail jobs were the jobs for students and housewives who were a second income in the house  (not meant to be insulting to women, that was just a fact of the times) The country needs to bring back the manufacturing jobs that are in China. They paid a living wage--maybe you didn't get rich, but you could make a career out of the job and support your family.
Apr 1, 2013 9:01PM

Problems with the job market:

1. Employers now offer 36 hours a week so they do not have to pay medical insurance.

2. The hiring process now takes weeks for one job.

3. Too many people applying for the good jobs reducing chances.

4. Internet has caused an increase in unqualified candidates applying .

5. Employers now step over the line in wanting to control personal lives as well.

6. Most interview questions are just plain stupid. I was recently asked how I will survive on the salary offered? My answer probably the same way your other employees do.

7. Overqualified individuals applying for low level positions making it impossible to get a median income job.

8. It is an employers market.

9. Cost of living goes up but pay never does.

10. You now have to know someone to get a decent position.


Apr 1, 2013 5:55PM
keep sending the higher paying jobs oversees all you greedy corporations and there will be no one to buy your products.  where will that leave you?
Apr 1, 2013 9:02PM
I worked for 25 years in blue-collar industries, and never made more that $30K per year despite working up to 80 hours per week.  I went college, earned two degrees, and worked for 25 more years in a technical/manufacturing field, and still never made more than $42K per year working 40 hour weeks.  Now, I am too old to get a job of ANY description.  I have never approached the nearly $46K per year this article defines as the annual mean wage in this country.  This mean wage is skewed higher by the overpaid people who work union jobs and by the people in high-paying professional positions.  Most people in this country never had a union job or were ever paid anything near union scale.  Nowadays, even $20 per hour is a dream for most people.  $20 per hour is only $40K per year GROSS, before taxes; considerably less after taxes.  You can live reasonably well, at least in some parts of the country, on that, but in other parts of the country, you can barely survive.  Now, it is getting more and more difficult to find ANY job over $10 per hour, no matter what your education or experience.  How does a young person ever start a family or buy a house on that?  The American dream is dead. 
Apr 1, 2013 9:26PM

When one figures that a retail clerk (single mom 1-2 kids) is earning $10.10 hr but working 30/hr wk with no benefits that mean taxpayers are providing about $2,400/yr in food stamps, $2,400 assistance with low income housing, $6,000 yr in child care, than add on the cost of Meidcaid , currently valued over $1000/month for a family of 2-3.  Then you see why government is growning and why business is making billionairs of their CEOs.


Raise wages, eliminate welfare, et people live on what they earn and let the CEOs F-themselves.

Apr 1, 2013 8:48PM
The bottom line has driven corperate greed out of control. Even my HOA non profit corperation is out of control. Banks, insurance, health care, drugs, hospitals, auto, energy / oil / fuel, electric utility, large farming and ranch corp. retail store chains, and our government taxes, fees, fines, permits, CalFire fees, business lic., courts, and prisons are all about sucking money from the middle class.  Over 40% of my income is paid for other than food and housing. Just sucking my dry. The dollars I saved for retirement are worth half that of 25 years ago. The value keeps going down as the printing press keep printing more dollars.  How long can we keep this up. I'm ready to join any protest that says, ENOUGH ALREADY...
Apr 1, 2013 6:31PM

Compression of wages for the once middle cl****fessions will continue just as they have in other countries.  High school drop outs were replaced with high school grads and now are being replaced by college grads for menial jobs.  Workers even with advanced education will soon not be able to earn a living wage.

Apr 1, 2013 9:20PM
$25,000 a year or do you mean in 2 years ?  I have been a career counselor and job placement specialists and know of NO RETAIL setting in which someone would earn $12/hr ($25,000 yr).   Most retail jobs are part time so the real income for retail jobs is probably closer to $12,000 year.  Here is the real wage from O'Net the government site:
National-Retail salesperson
Median wages (2011)$10.10 hourly, $21,010 annual
Apr 1, 2013 3:21PM
all hale the corporatocracy ... and the dream jobs they've festered
Apr 1, 2013 7:15PM

We have got to figure a way for all people wanting to work full-time...get full-time and earn a livable wage regardless of the work...if it needs doing, it should pay at least just above poverty level. 


Once this was a given, now unskilled means slave labor....while the owners at places like Wal-Mart and HEB are billionaires.  Sure the owners should be rewarded, but they should either have the pride to pay their workers a decent wage, or we figure a way to dramatically tax the rich and supply the working poor with many of their needs so their paycheck sustains them on the rest..


....and don't bring up that "trickle down" nonsense that the congressmen bought by the rich feed you....nothing ever trickles down.  The rich love high unemployment (look at the tea party looking to destroy as many government jobs as possible) because then they can fill their unskilled jobs for peanuts and get richer.

Apr 1, 2013 4:52PM
Calling all thinkers what is the future of america?
Apr 1, 2013 7:50PM
Unless you get a STEM education, you will likely be working one of these jobs.  Americans have spent billions getting useless degrees.    The fault we have in our student loan program is that you can study anything and get a loan.   There is no set priorities.   The current unemployment rate for STEM is 2.5% and companies cannot find enough people with STEM degrees.
Apr 1, 2013 8:13PM
Keep stepping on the throat of small business with increased healthcare and tax costs and you can fight over bad retail jobs...You want better jobs, get the gov out the way so the private sector can create them
Apr 1, 2013 6:05PM

I wonder who could have predicted this?



Apr 2, 2013 2:08AM
There is too much greed not only in the corporations and government but in the sports and entertainment industries.  There is no logical reason to pay the tens of millions of dollars to the bulked up sports "heroes" or pretty faced talentless actors, singers and reality hosts.  All these numbers badly skew all statistics and often hide how bad the pay scales really are; ie. retail sales at $25,000 vs the real rates of $12,000 +/-.  Also in the sciences where statistics say the avg. salary is in the $60,000s but my son, a micro biologist makes about $40,000.  This shows up in all salary surveys, hardly anyone is hired at the average salary anymore; the real wages, taking out overpaid "stars" is far below the skewed averages.

Furthermore our corrupt congress is now going to legalize hundreds of thousands of illegals to take whatever jobs which remain for our high school dropouts, high school grads, and the college grads with useless liberal arts degrees.  The U.S. is on a very slippery slope to becoming a third world country.  Of course, as in all third world countries, the politicians and the privileged classes, including politicians, will retain their money and lofty positions while the middle classes disappear, the students get even more substandard educations and the poor die from common diseases or starvation.  In addition the corporate leaders and congress will continue to send the good paying jobs to India, China, Africa and other hell holes until such time as we are poorer and less educated then those places.  They will bring the jobs back when we become a nation of 300,000,000 poverty stricken, uneducated, groveling slaves.

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