As far as retail jobs are concerned, it hasn’t been a happy new year so far.

While employment overall is at a record high of almost 76%, retailers are, in stark contrast, shedding jobs.

Hard on the heels of the latest BRC data, showing that the number of retail employees fell year-on-year by 70,000 in the fourth quarter of 2018, came this week’s cull at Tesco. The grocery market leader is consulting with 9,000 staff as it seeks efficiencies.

While Tesco hopes to be able to redeploy half of those impacted, retail jobs overall look likely to continue on a downward trend. In the current quarter, 29% of retailers intend to cut employee numbers, according to the BRC.

“The people losing their jobs now are unlikely to have the skills increasingly sought for the new roles emerging”

The wilting retail jobs market has to be seen in context. Tesco employs about 300,000 people in the UK, so the latest round of cuts, while very sad for those affected, is small in the greater scheme of things.

And all businesses must be efficient, especially when they need to offer value to shoppers – low costs are an essential contributor to low prices.

Similarly, if parts of the proposition are losing consumer appeal, as Tesco’s meat, fish and deli counters seem to be, then there’s little point in carrying on as normal.

All that said, the ongoing loss of retail jobs should concern the industry.

Proud tradition

Retail has always been rightly proud of being the country’s biggest private-sector employer. It has also always been justifiably proud of its many shopfloor-to-boardroom success stories – Tesco founder Sir Jack Cohen being an obvious example.

But amid rising employment in general, the stream of bad news on retail jobs – and the travails of companies ranging from Debenhams to HMV – is likely to put off applicants.

In particular, it may deter the new digital and data talent needed as retailers attempt to adapt and embrace the new technology that is contributing to a changing industry landscape.

The people losing their jobs now are unlikely to have the skills increasingly sought for the new roles emerging – and that is potentially bad news for the social mobility epitomised by old retail career paths.

While that has always been a by-product rather than the point of retail, its diminution matters. That’s because the industry’s success then becomes even less of a priority for politicians than it is at present – and it already seems to be item 1,099 on MPs’ to-do list.

Social immobility

It’s more than four years since John Lewis Partnership chair Sir Charlie Mayfield spoke out on the importance of social mobility in a time of technological change and when better productivity and wages were needed.

He issued both a plea and a warning when he said: “One of the important purposes of the workplace is it facilitates social mobility… but possibly the career ladder may just become a little bit harder to climb and it may become a little bit more difficult for the workplace to facilitate social mobility just at a time when we need more of that, not less.”

He was speaking in particular circumstances and much may have changed since, but doesn’t his fundamental point still hold true in retail?

“Retail needs to get better at telling its story so it is heard, and acted on, in the corridors of power”

While there is much talk of “fewer but better jobs” in retail in the years to come, the “fewer” part seems more to the fore than the “better”.

That sits uncomfortably when business purpose, as well as profit, is increasingly seen as a foundation of successful companies.

The loss of retail jobs matters, to the industry and society. Retailers are changing, though perhaps there should be more of a shift towards digital apprenticeships rather than traditional craft ones.

But Westminster’s disregard for the circumstances that are leading to job cuts – such as punishing cost rises, including the burden of business rates – is another reminder that retail needs to get better at telling its story so it is heard, and acted on, in the corridors of power.