Students are often found in the service industry, serving coffee and selling clothes in their spare time. Whether it’s to pay for your groceries or for your loans, students work to have a bit more money to spend.
According to Service Canada, 39 per cent of jobs in retail and sales are occupied by those aged 15 to 24. Of all those working in the retail industry, 28 per cent make under $20,000 in a year.
Fiona Angus is a professor of sociology at MacEwan University whose areas of specialization include work and labour. According to Angus, businesses have always provided customer service, but these positions have become more important since the economy began globalizing.
A brief history
Starting back in the ‘70s, companies began outsourcing production as a way to reduce costs. The more production was outsourced, the more customers felt dissatisfied with the poor quality of the products they purchased, and the more complaints they made.
However, Angus says in the ‘80s, standalone customer service departments began to emerge to deal with customer concerns, and around the same time, businesses began emphasizing organizational culture. “Organizational culture is a word that refers to the culture, the sort of ideology that exists in that company,” says Angus.
Organizational culture functions much like a form of customer service. Businesses present an image of their culture to the public that encourages customers and employees alike to stick with the company instead of going to competitors.
“One of the threads of that organizational culture that began to get focused on even more so by the early ‘90s was to put the belief out there that ‘the customer comes first,’ that ‘we will go to any lengths for our customers,’” says Angus.
This is one of the more challenging aspects of working in customer service. People working the front lines are expected to remain pleasant and polite no matter how trying or rude the customer.
“A phrase that describes that is emotional labour, because in fact it is labour,” says Angus.
“It’s work that involves managing emotions – managing one’s own emotions, but even more so, managing the emotions of the customer.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, women in Canada are more likely than men to be found in positions that require emotional labour. According to Stats Canada in 2011, women’s participation surpassed men’s in occupations that involved sales and service; business, finance and administration; education, law and social, community and government services; and health.
Customer service jobs work well for a lot of students. The majority of positions available are part-time, making it easier to manage work alongside classes.
According to Angus, businesses like to hire people who represent their products’ target demographic; this means students are a hot commodity. Businesses hiring for retail and customer service positions also prefer younger workers because workers with more life experience are often unwilling to tolerate the often-overbearing surveillance that comes with these jobs.
Angus thinks of the hiring process as a dance. During the interview, for example, an employer may talk about opportunities for new hires who play their cards right to end up in management positions, as an attempt at increasing employee retention.
Angus points out the impossibility of this happening for most workers. Consider how small the number of managers is compared to the overall number of people working for a company like McDonalds.
Still, the new employee has to play along. “Part of their choreography will be knowing that, ‘I’m not going to be here five years from now. I hope I’m not even here one year from now! But I’m going to pretend that I want to dedicate my life to this retail operation,’” she says.
Most students aren’t likely to stay at their part-time job forever, which makes the hiring process a little different. But it prepares them for their intended career, where they would hope for a little more retention.
Photo by Joel Kramer, Flickr Creative Commons.