The industrial revolution was a period in the 18th to 19th centuries that saw massive changes in our societies. We changed from hand-powered devices to machines, developed new manufacturing processes, new methods of organising production, and a new source of power – steam.
Today, we’re in a period that is seeing machines replaced by computers, developed transistor fabrication processes, created digital products, and has discovered a new communication technology – the internet.
The parallels between these two should be obvious. Like our ancestors, we’re experiencing a period of immense change. Our societies, employers, workplaces, job roles, entertainment, shopping, and home life, things that we can think of as our environment, are all changing. When the Earth was struck 65 million years ago, earth matter thrown up into the atmosphere blotted out enough light and warmth from the sun to cause mass extinctions, the dinosaurs most famously. However, there have been other mass extinctions with some estimating that 99% of all species that have ever lived are extinct. As an environment changes, the characteristics needed for success, or survival, in that environment change.
Toys Were US
Take Toys R Us, or as someone I spoke to earlier this year referred to them, ‘Toys Were Us’. Twenty or thirty years ago, the Toys R Us warehouse stores in the UK were a big attraction, an event. However, they were typically out-of-town stores. With more people living in cities, people leading busy lives, online retailers able to deliver and offer lower prices, going to out-of-town stores now look anachronistic.
The very nature of physical stores comes with a significant consequence: revenue has to account for store rental costs, staffing that store, getting products to stores, merchandising etc. These are not costs that online retailers like Amazon have to bear. Also, if a physical store needs to be redecorated, then it will need to be closed, potentially for weeks. However, Amazon can change how a make looks through altering some HTML or the CSS. If a physical store introduces a new product, then space needs to be made for it on the shelf and in the stock room in every store. If Amazon wants to introduce a new product, then they can create a page for it and add it to the right product category. With none of these physical issues to address, Amazon can move far quicker than a physical store.
With costs that online stores don’t have to bear and a slower response time, physical retail stores have significant disadvantages. This year, 2018, has seen Toys R Us, Maplin, House of Fraser, and Poundworld all collapse. This is just the tip of the iceberg, though. Retail store closures are up almost 60% and bad debt owed to companies in the sector has increasing by 2464.5%. There are external factors such as changes in the exchange rate affecting imports taking place as well as costs outside of their control such as minimum wage rises.
Even before this very difficult year for the sector, employment in retail, the UK’s largest commercial sector, was falling.
This is dismal reading for anyone in retail and I’m concerned for the future of my former colleagues. With every store that closes and every corporation that fails, there are more people competing for fewer jobs.
However, something that isn’t often discussed is how effectively physical retail stores are trying to compete or whether they’re competing at all. Toys R Us kept their largest, worst performing and most costly stores open, cut staff which prevented them from providing good customer service let alone a great experience that would help them stand out and retained dated branding. Without a great customer experience that feels modern, what will allow physical stores to compete?
Digital transformation: self
We’ve also moved into an era of digital media. There’s no denying the power of a big screen experience for watching films. Equally, there’s no denying the power of paying a flat monthly or yearly fee for a streaming service that costs less than one movie ticket a month and has no use restrictions. The convenience of digital media, the capability to watch a film, listen to a song or play a game without having to leave your computer, tablet or phone to acquire it has a lot of ‘convenience power’.
As with digital retail, digital media requires new skills. Not just to create it, but to manage it. The capability to manage digital media effectively has become so valuable that King’s College London offers an MA in the topic: digital asset management or DAM.
Speaking as someone who worked in retail as recently as January 2018, retail doesn’t require any specific training or experience before you can become a sales assistant. This has traditionally been good in the sense that it opened up employment opportunities for people that might not otherwise exist. However, the lack of skill and training required to become a sales assistant also contributes to low pay in the sector.
The Low Pay Commission estimates that half of all jobs paying at or below the minimum wage are in retail, hospitality and cleaning & maintenance occupations - Jennifer Brown and Feargal McGuinness
Retail rarely pays commission, so you can’t make it up there or with tips.
There’s also no good trade-off in terms of the nature of the work as well. It’s both physically and emotionally draining. Granted, it isn’t mining, but being on your feet for 8 hours minimum each day dealing with customers, a disturbingly large minority of whom treat people who work in retail badly. Having to be nice to people who talk down to you, look through you or treat you as an emotional punchbag is draining.
Some of this was in my mind in autumn 2015 when I complained to a friend and mentor about the poor pay and draining nature of the job. Though I didn’t know how bad things were for the retail sector then, it was clear to me that the sector couldn’t compete with online stores. The advice that my friend gave me was, in essence, to consider how I could adapt. She outlined three ways of moving forward:
Think about how what skills I already had could be applied in other jobs.
Select a job role I'd like and then get specific training for that job.
Do a master's degree that led to a specific job which would also have the added benefit of making me stand out to employers far more than just my BA would.
The challenge then was to adapt to the digital world so that I had more skills that are valuable in the digital era.
My friend pointed me to Temple Grandin’s list of recommended and not recommended careers for autistic people. The most appealing job on the list was librarian. From there, my friend pointed me to the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professional’s (CILIP) list of accredited programmes. On that list was the DAM MA at King’s. As soon as I read it, I instinctively knew that it was the right programme. It was digital from the ground up: the future. Almost all the other MAs were regular librarian master’s programmes with a digital module or two tacked on. I worked through a process of comparing all the programmes, but everything came back to King’s. I went to open evenings at King’s in winter 2015/2016. I was impressed with the support on offer for disabled students. I was also encouraged by the careers team information that the median salary of someone in their first job after leaving King’s with an MA was £28,000. I spent two months working on my personal statement, submitting it in February 2016. In April 2016, I received an unconditional offer to study at King’s. Cue jumping up and down in celebration!
36 hours later my mother died. I never got to give her the good news.
I wouldn’t have been able to start at King’s without what was then called the post-graduate loan. I understood that it's a loan, but this was an investment in my future that had a good chance of yielding a great return.
At the end of September 2016, I was walking past the faces of famous alumni on the front of the Strand building at King’s.
Walking past such famous faces was intimidating, but I reminded myself that I deserved to be there: King’s had sent me an unconditional offer. Having done my BA with the Open University, going into lectures and seminars was an entirely new experience. Despite that, with hard work, I flourished. I received a distinction on the core module and fell just short of a distinction on the two optional modules.
Since I was studying part time, I then had the advantage of not having to study in semester three 2017. So, I began reaching out to the professional world of DAM. I connected on LinkedIn with Theresa Regli, Maria Efstathiou and Cécile Ritte. I want to thank them for making time for me. Their knowledge and experience has been valuable.
One of the traps that can arise when you’re a student at a post-graduate level is that you’re studying something intensely, so it becomes easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you know more than you do. Also, you’re studying something but you aren’t actually engaged in it, so you don’t have a realistic perspective of your field, and you don’t have the responsibility of being a professional in the field. When I met Maria, she gave me a lot of encouragement, but also helped me understand that some of my perspectives were unrealistic. That feedback was critical in enabling me to begin connecting with the real world of DAM. That night I went to bed a DAM student. That meeting opened my eyes to a whole new world of DAM.
The second year proved difficult with lots of deadlines in semester one and then initially struggling to get started on my dissertation, something that became a source of increasing anxiety. Once I got started, though, there was no stopping me. I ended semester two with a merit and a distinction in my modules. Now, I just have to wait a week or so for my dissertation grade. I’ve always taken the view that only a distinction would be good enough. I’ve learned so much and approach DAM so positively that Theresa hired me in May 2018. To be working for one of the foremost consultants in DAM is a real privilege, but it’s one that I earned.
This has been my journey of transforming myself from someone who was employable in a low skill, low pay, analogue-era business model to someone employable in a high skill, higher pay, digital-era business model. The journey isn't over yet. I still have a lot to learn, but the MA and the start I've got with Theresa has given me confidence that I have what it takes to keep moving forward.
With old business models collapsing (and the corporations that used them collapsing along with them) transforming ourselves, adapting in other words, appears more essential than valuable. It appears that increasing numbers of people will need to start assessing in honest and dispassionate ways what future we have in our current sectors. If that assessment is ‘not much’, then the only thing that can solve the problem is change.
I knew that store retail was not healthy when I began applying for a place at King’s winter 2015/2016. Retail also pays poorly and pay doesn’t scale with responsibility. I looked at alternative careers, found the right education to enable me to transform myself, considered what kind of salary I might receive post-graduation, acquired the right support (post-graduate loan and disabled students allowance), and made the best application I could.
I’m not suggesting that a master’s degree is the best route forward for everyone, I’m just using my own example to highlight that it is possible to explore options, filter them into a shortlist, learn more about whether the shortlisted options will make you more employable, what salary you could receive, and then pursue your choices with passion and determination.
I also know that some people are living so hand-to-mouth that taking time to retrain is effectively unimaginable. It’s here that governments may need to consider whether tax-payer’s money should be directed to providing support to people who need to retrain so that they can transition into digital-era careers.
What everyone needs is the openness to making changes which may vary from learning additional skills to outright career changes. This has been my journey and I have to say, the water’s fine. Being in my forties and autistic didn’t stop me. Being a bit older made me take my degree more seriously than many of my fellow students appeared to. This may have underpinned how well I’ve done in my studies and Theresa hiring me.
So yes, there are lots of changes taking place and it’s painful. The surest way of being left behind, though, is by standing still. Now we have to move forward into a new era. For many corporations, it appears to already be too late. For people, though, there are opportunities out there, but they don’t fall into our laps.
So I’d encourage others to investigate what routes forward they have and everyone working in retail to consider whether their employer really has a future. It’s an uncomfortable thought and it’s understandable that people don’t want to engage with such painful possibilities. However, the digital world is not going to just disappear to accommodate you. This is a period that may exceed the industrial revolution’s level of change. Our environment is changing and we need to consider how we can adapt.