Nov. 8, 2012 at 7:44 AM ET
Marc Mohan doesn’t look like a relic. But the Portland, Ore., man is among the last of his kind — the video store clerk.
For more than half his life, Mohan, 42, has spent the work week buying movies on VHS and DVD, stocking shelves with rental returns, and helping customers decide the latest Hollywood release to bring home for a Friday night movie marathon.
All that stopped in mid-October when Mohan shut the doors to his North Portland store, Video Verite, for good. After nine years running the shop and a dozen years before that working as an assistant for another independent video store in the area, he’s calling it quits. In the end, he couldn’t compete with Netflix, Redbox and on-demand movie services. “But it’s going to be a while until all of those services have the selection to a match a moderately well-stocked video store,” he says.
Mohan’s job behind the video store counter is one occupation quietly slipping into obscurity as times change and technology replaces work that people once did.
In the near future, dozens of other jobs are predicted to go the way of the newspaper typesetter and telegraph operator. By 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts sharp declines in jobs for postal workers, telephone operators and toll collectors to name but a few professions being lost to progress’ forward march.
Here’s a look at some of the country’s disappearing jobs:
As the U.S. Postal Service struggles to stay afloat in the era of email and text messages, it’s axed hundreds of thousands of mail carrier and other postal department jobs.
In the past 12 months, the USPS has cut more than 120,000 positions, for a current head count of slightly more than 525,000, according to USPS spokesman Mark Saunders. The cuts come at a time when the service’s workforce was already the smallest it’s been in a quarter century, according to the independently run Congressional Research Service. The USPS is expected to do even more downsizing in 2013 as part of a plan to save money by reducing office hours and closing some local processing centers.
Mail sorters, processors and postal machine operators will be hit hardest, with a 53 percent drop in those jobs expected this decade, the second fastest decline for any U.S. occupation, according to the Labor Dept.’s 2012-2013 Occupational Outlook Handbook. In all, USPS employment is expected to fall more than a quarter (26 percent) between 2010 and 2020, according to the BLS.
The combination of less reliance on physical mail, technology advances and the USPS’ requirement to keep a balanced budget continues to wipe out jobs, says Roseanne Jefferson, a retired USPS human resources manager who counsels other postal worker on retirement issues. “I’m doing retirement (talks) out the wazoo,” she says.
Telephone operator jobs have been dwindling since the 1980s due to computer-based automated attendant systems and Internet technology that provides phone and other communications services.
By 2020, the number of operator jobs is expected to drop close to 32 percent, according to the BLS.
The Communications Workers of America’s 700,000 telecommunications union members include an undetermined number of telephone operators and 911 emergency operators. When operators lose their jobs, the union helps with retraining so they can move into new positions in their companies as technicians or with customer service, says CWA spokesperson Candice Johnson.
But operators may never disappear completely, at least not in places such as Clara Maass Medical Center. The 469-bed community hospital in Belleville, N.J., employs seven full-time and part-time operators to run its automated phone system. Eleven more contract operators are on call. Right now, Clara Maass is looking to fill a telecommunications operator position, preferably with a high-school graduate who has experience running a PBX-phone system, according to an ad on the hospital’s career website.
When the hospital has patient or other emergencies, a computer-based automated phone system just doesn’t cut it, says HR vice president James Rolek. “There’s always going to be a need for a real person there, just due to the nature of what we do.…just maybe not as many,” he says.
If "While You Were Sleeping" were made today, the character Sandra Bullock played in the mistaken identity comedy likely wouldn’t be a Chicago Transit Authority toll booth operator. Like other transit organizations, CTA has automated tolls, displacing toll collectors.
Government number crunchers lump toll collectors and toll booth operators with other types of cashier jobs, making it difficult to get a fix on the precise number of toll collector jobs that have been phased out on the nation’s toll roads, subways and trains. While overall cashier jobs are expected to grow 7 percent this decade, most of them will come in retail cashier jobs, according to the 2012-2013 Occupational Outlook Handbook.
It’s easier to see what’s replacing toll collectors: electronic payments systems. One of the biggest is E-ZPass, now used by 24 agencies in 14 states. From 2005 to 2011, the number of drivers using E-ZPass transponders instead of cash to pay toll road and other fees jumped 60 percent, to 22.5 million. In 2011 alone, E-ZPass devices recorded close to 2.5 billion transactions.
Some states and unions are fighting over whether to convert to cashless systems or protect toll collector jobs. Earlier this year, Maine’s state employee association filed a lawsuit after the state turnpike authority eliminated 20 jobs, according to the Bangor Daily News. State officials in Pennsylvania are under fire from union supporters as they consider switching the Pennsylvania Turnpike to an entirely cashless system, which could eliminate 2,000 toll collector jobs, according to a WIVB report. In 2011, the Port Authority that runs toll booths on highways between New York and New Jersey was blasted after news reports that some of its 147 toll collectors were earning tens of thousands of dollars a year in overtime pay, leading to calls for better regulation and more automation.
Whatever you’re wearing on your feet right now probably wasn’t made in the United States.
A total of 95.5 percent of the sneakers, shoes and other footwear sold in the United States is made in China, Vietnam or elsewhere. That’s up from 81 percent only a dozen years ago, according to business analyst IBISWorld, Inc. Over the past few decades, the country’s shoe companies eliminated U.S. manufacturing jobs first through better automation and then by shipping them to overseas factories to take advantage of cheap labor.
As a result, shoemaking is becoming a lost art. Today, only 3,200 shoe machine operators and tenders work in the United States, a number that’s expected to drop by more than half by 2020, the largest percent decline in employment of any occupation in the country, according to the BLS. Only five states show up in labor statistics as having shoe machine operator jobs: Oregon, California, Minnesota, Tennessee and Massachusetts.
There’s little chance those jobs are coming back, says Nikoleta Panteva, an IBISWorld senior analyst. Declines might not be as steep as they have been in recent years, when companies cut positions because of the recession. “But we don’t expect a turnaround in employment any time soon, if ever,” she says.
Video store clerk
It wasn’t that long ago video stores and clerks like Marc Mohan were as much a part of American landscape as iPhones and the iTunes store are today. In 1989, 70,000 video stores dotted U.S. streets and strip malls, according to IHS Screen Digest U.S. media analyst Tom Adams. Today, there are 5,000, done in by the popularity of Netflix, Redbox, DVRs and on-demand services that stream movies to your TV or smartphone.
Chain video stores were the first to close under pressure from digital competitors. “Now all that’s left are the small independent stores, many of which are owned by people who don’t do it as a huge money maker but because they love movies,” Mohan says.
Getting movies on demand might be more convenient. But nothing can replace the personal touch a video store clerk can offer, he says. “There’s no algorithm in the world that’s good enough to replace an educated clerk at a video store that knows your tastes and can steer you to something you’d like.”
Michelle V. Rafter is a Portland, Ore., business reporter covering employment and business.