Ed Gullo never thought he'd be on this side of a package delivery.
Gullo, 61, of Newburgh, N.Y., is driving a truck for FedEx during the holiday shipping rush that started after Thanksgiving. Gullo is no veteran truck driver. He's a news writer with experience at ABC and CNN, who found gigs hard to come by in the weak economy.
FedEx and UPS, the world's two largest package delivery companies, hire thousands of extra workers every holiday season, usually college students and 20-somethings. This year, the unemployment rate is at 10 percent and many experienced professionals are looking for work. A lot more people came to job fairs wearing a coat and tie, said UPS spokesman Norman Black.
Rolf Wick applied online with UPS after being laid off from an IT management position. The 42-year-old, who lives in San Francisco, was managing a staff of consultants and administrators. Now he's a driver's helper, tracking the status of packages and running from house to house making deliveries.
Gullo earns about $13 an hour with FedEx, far less than the $36 an hour he makes on average as a free-lancer in the news business. He said he felt out of his element at the start of training, where he made minimum wage for a week driving a small rental truck "around a lot of cones." That's some difference from last holiday season, when Gullo was writing for popular programs such as "World News Now" and "Good Morning America."
Another difference is the physical nature of the work. Both Gullo and Wick say they're sore after 50-hour weeks of loading and unloading packages filled with holiday gifts. UPS expects to deliver roughly 22 million small packages on its busiest day this year — projected to be Monday. FedEx, based in Memphis, Tenn., shipped about 14.1 million packages on Dec. 14, its peak holiday shipping day.
"I say sometimes, 'I know what I'm having for dessert tonight — and that will be a couple aspirin,'" Wick said.
UPS said it made fewer holiday hires this year to keep costs down — about 50,000 seasonal workers this year compared with 60,000 two years ago. The company did not release year-ago figures, although it said applications rose 20 percent compared with 2008. FedEx's ground division added 14,000 temporary workers — about the same as last year.
UPS expects to keep on 10,000 to 15,000 holiday hires this year. The company says many who stay on will get part-time jobs, where the turnover rate is high. According to Black, more than half of the company's part-time workers are college students. Black notes that 10 out of 12 of UPS' top executives started in entry-level jobs.
That's the path Wick aspires to. He's wants to get permanent work and eventually leave the deliveries to someone else, working his way up to management. Or possibly a gig in IT.
"The IT field is a very tough place to be in this economy," he said. "So I'm coming in as (a) seasonal (worker at UPS) with the hopes of turning it in to something better."
FedEx typically retains some temporary hires after the holidays. Rookie driver Gullo isn't interested in a permanent position. In fact, after long talks with his wife, the veteran of the news industry says he'll consider early retirement, if freelance gigs don't come more often. At his age, he said, he'd rather live on less in retirement than struggle from one temporary job to another.
"This experience (at FedEx) has really kind of forced me into thinking about it," he said. "I'm going to have to live more modestly, but I've decided that's OK."
But the younger Wicks has to take a different approach.
"I don't have a problem proving myself again if that's what it's going to take," he said.