Amid historically low unemployment rate, companies are fighting for holiday help

Amazon has raised the bar when it comes to wages, setting a $15 per hour minimum in its warehouses. “Every other retailer has to compete with that,” said one hiring expert.
US Economy Rebounds By Adding 224,000 New Jobs In June
A hiring sign in lower Manhattan on July 5, 2019.Spencer Platt / Getty Images file

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By Martha C. White

“Christmas creep” is bad enough if you’re a shopper, but it’s even worse for retailers and seasonal job-seekers. With unemployment at a historically low rate, stores have had to start their seasonal holiday hiring earlier in the year, even though the retail sector overall has been shedding jobs. For job-seekers, this means the time to hustle is when Halloween decorations come out.

“We saw this last year where we saw a handful of retailers start to hire as early as the summer. It’s just another indication of how tight the labor market is today,” said Andrew Challenger, vice president at executive outplacement and coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “Wages are rising at a relatively quick pace, and companies have to compete early to make sure they have the necessary talent in their stores,” he said, noting that Kohl’s and Amazon started their holiday hiring over the summer, and the typical seasonal announcements coming from big brands like Target and 1800Flowers also came earlier this year.

According to data from staffing firm ManpowerGroup, seasonal job volume in August rose by 64 percent compared with 2016, and July volume rose by 49 percent over the same time frame. The company said the top cities for seasonal jobs are, respectively, New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Boston, and its list of the top 10 employers hiring seasonal workers includes major retailers like Walmart, Dollar General, Lowe’s and Target.

“With the tight labor market, competition for talent is strong. Companies are realizing they need to begin their recruitment efforts earlier in order to attract and hire the best candidates for their open roles and get to them before their competitors reach those individuals,” said Michelle Armer, chief people officer at CareerBuilder. Armer said CareerBuilder’s annual hiring survey, conducted earlier this year, found that one in five employers plan to add more temporary workers this year. “Much of this hiring happens around the holiday season,” she said.

This early ramp-up comes in spite of secular economic trends pushing overall retail hiring down, however. “Brick-and-mortar retailers are getting hammered by Amazon and other online retailing,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “It’s intensified a bit more recently,” he said. “It’s really the only part of the job market that’s been laying off.”

According to Challenger, Gray & Christmas research, seasonal hiring fell by 6 percent last year, a reflection of the ongoing struggles faced by the retail sector.

Some of this drop was made up by greater job growth in fulfillment. As online sales have climbed, so has the need for workers in warehouses, along with fulfillment work like shipping and delivery. Challenger noted that UPS waited only until barely after Labor Day to announce its plans to hire 100,000 temporary workers for the holidays.

“That’s where the real shortages of labor are — distribution, wholesaling, warehousing,” Zandi said.

Experts say Amazon has played a major role in this reshaping of the holiday-help labor market. Last week, the e-commerce behemoth held a nationwide job fair, recruiting in six different cities in a bid to add 30,000 workers, both full- and part-time. In a statement, founder and CEO Jeff Bezos said Amazon has created more than 300,000 American jobs within the past decade.

Challenger said Amazon has shifted the seasonal dynamic when it comes to pay, as well, raising the bar last year when it set a $15 minimum for wages in its warehouses. “In every market where they’re competing, that’s a significant increase. Every other retailer has to compete with that. They’ve really pushed the industry to increase wages,” he said.

The early push for seasonal work could be a great opportunity for part-time workers trying to land steady employment, experts said. “They’re getting more hours, more full-time jobs,” Zandi said. “A few years ago, a lot of it was part time [but] that’s less and less the case,” he said.

“For people who want full-time roles, this is a great time to put a foot in the door, almost as an extended interview,” Challenger said.