(Photo courtesy of Shine Learning) “Working retail on top of a college schedule can be incredibly draining.”
The reality of attending college in the 2020s is that many students need to work while in school to get by. The cost of living is high, and the price of schooling is higher. For many students, retail jobs hold a certain allure. Working hours can be low commitment, many places are hiring and management opportunities for higher pay have become more accessible. However, these jobs hold many pitfalls that can hold students back from success.
Throughout my college career, I have held several varying retail positions in different contexts, and I still do to this day. While my current position is better than the ones that have come before, there are still many downsides to working in this industry while being a college student.
It may have been said many times before, but it bears repeating: the worst part of working in retail is dealing with the customers. Retail customers are often demanding, unreasonable and sometimes even gross. I have had customers yell at me for not having a product available when I previously worked at a major department store, even when product availability is out of my hands. I have had customers demand lower prices than explicitly advertised because they misunderstood our pricing signs when working in clothing. I have even had an adult intentionally pee in the store.
Dealing with customer stressors would be easier with managerial support, but this is often lacking. Currently, I have an impressive and understanding managerial team, but this has not always been the case. Under my earlier management at my current job, I have been expected to work alone for closing hours. At a previous job, I was expected to clear seven pallets’ worth of shipment in a single eight-hour shift. I was even expected to run a storefront alone for an entire day at only 17 years of age.
With the high turnover rates of retail, the job being done can often change entirely on any random day. Almost every job I have worked at for more than a few months has undergone managerial change while I was there, and every time there was a managerial change, the workplace culture shifted dramatically. Jobs that promised to be laid-back environments where I could do homework suddenly became the most draining jobs I have ever had. Conversely, jobs that were intense and grueling sometimes also became more relaxing after these shifts. However, it has usually been the former.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an existing rhetoric amongst many bosses that no one wants to work anymore. In searching for jobs and working in jobs that have spread this rhetoric, I can personally say that this is not always true. Often, it is simply cover for managers to excuse not scheduling enough workers on a shift due to insane constraints placed upon workers. At a recent job, a manager was only allowed to schedule 130 hours a week in a place that was open 65 hours a week. That only averages two people on at once at any given time.
Working in these small-scale retail environments makes work breaks a touchy subject. Any manager usually must always be on the clock and accessible at all times, but with two people on at once and only one being a manager, any break is bound to be short and interrupted. Working at places where I have had to work alone has deprived me of having any breaks at all, and even places with enough workers have still been troublesome at giving out breaks. At a popular outdoor entertainment venue I worked at this past summer, I was given two 15-minute breaks over the course of a 13-hour shift.
These often-grueling expectations for jobs primarily intended to be after-school work for high school and college students lead to a major burnout crisis among workers. After attending six-plus hours of school and four-plus hours of work, any time remaining for homework is often brushed aside for time to de-stress. The expectations are higher for teenagers and early-20-year-olds to produce an often-higher work volume in terms of hours per day than people who have settled into their long-term careers.
With sky-high expectations that constantly shift, retail is often not the right environment for a college student to thrive in. We need jobs, but we also need jobs that respect our busy lives and place proper expectations on us. I urge college students to seek out jobs that have lower stakes and respect the already demanding work they are putting into their academic careers, rather than ones who see their work as the most important thing and schoolwork as secondary.