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Holiday Job Hunters: Look Beyond Retail

ALLISON KEYES, host: As you just heard, many people are struggling to pay down their student loan debt. For some of them, getting a seasonal job could be a good way to earn extra money. Over the next few weeks, retailers are expected to hire nearly half a million people for the holiday shopping season, but landing one of these jobs will still be a challenge. With 14 million Americans unemployed, retailers are likely to see far more applicants than they can hire this year.

With us to talk about the outlook for holiday hiring and retail sales is NPR's senior business editor Marilyn Geewax. Hey, Marilyn, welcome back.


KEYES: So half a million jobs seems like a lot, but as you've said, it's relative. What do you mean?

GEEWAX: Well, the National Retail Federation says that, this year, about a half a million people will be hired for retail jobs, so it's about the same as we had last year, but you know, we're still so far behind from where we were before the recession. In 2007, there were more like 720,000 jobs, so we're down a good bit from before this big recession hit us and 2008 was a really horrible year. That year, only about 300,000 people got jobs.

KEYES: Ouch. So a lot of these people that do the seasonal work fairly consistently, college students, retired workers, what's the season looking like for them? And is it the same kind of people that are looking for jobs this time around?

GEEWAX: Well, it's just tough to get jobs and no matter when it is or what you're doing, right now, we've got about 14 million people looking for work and a lot more people come around in that seasonal period. So you've got college students who want to pick up some work. You've got older people who want to supplement their income, stay-at-home moms who might want to pick up some seasonal work to help pay for their holiday gifts. So you've got a lot of competition every year and this year especially, with unemployment still over nine percent, you just really have an awful lot of people looking for not all that many jobs.

KEYES: I think I read somewhere that a lot more older workers are out this year. Is that true?

GEEWAX: And it's true. You look at the statistics on incomes among older people and they need to supplement what they're getting. Food costs are up. Gasoline is more expensive. So a lot of people are looking for ways to pick up some extra money and they need these kinds of jobs. So the competition is tough and the hiring is going on right now.

KEYES: Why are retailers still reluctant to hire more people this year?

GEEWAX: I think the big thing is that everybody knows that with income so squeezed - you know, wages really haven't been rising - and food prices, as I said, have been up, so it's pretty clear that people really want these jobs and need them, but we're getting more older people trying to compete with the college students. So we've got just a tough situation.

KEYES: But it seems I've seen commercials for some of the stores - I think Target is among them - are having these huge sales. They're staying open extra hours, that kind of thing. Don't they need people on the ground in the store for that?

GEEWAX: Here's the problem for the stores. They know that people are out there going online to look at comparison shopping, so they're looking at different prices and there's intense competition. So retailers know they're going to have to offer big discounts, those special days when everything will be 25 percent off or whatever.

And with all that deep discounting, they can't really afford to hire more workers, so they're going to try to hit that right balance between offering the discounts to get people into the store, but not having really high labor costs. So I think consumers know they want the discounts and retailers want to have you in the store, but you might expect long lines at the cash register.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes and we are talking about the outlook for seasonal employment and sales this year. With me is NPR's senior business editor Marilyn Geewax.

So let's talk about the hiring process. How long can people who are applying for these seasonal jobs expect to wait to hear if they're going to get it?

GEEWAX: It's pretty quick. I think that this year what we're really seeing is that people want - number one, they want you to be very flexible in your hours, so if you put down on your resume that, you know, you only want to work certain hours while the kids are in school, you're probably not going to compete very well for those jobs. But if you say that you're flexible and that you're willing to work hard. You're sober. You can pass the drug test. People like that will hear back pretty quickly.

KEYES: There are drug tests or retail jobs?

GEEWAX: Well, almost every kind of job these days, you want someone who is honest and sober and also just this flexibility thing is really a key because stores on the Friday after Thanksgiving, for example - a lot of them are saying they're going to open at midnight, 4:00 a.m. If you say, I can't do that. I can't work crazy hours. You're going to put yourself at a real disadvantage.

KEYES: I wonder whether older workers might have an advantage in that kind of environment because would employers not see them as perhaps more stable than a college student?

GEEWAX: Well, but the other thing is, if you think back what you felt like when you were 20, you could stand on your feet at 4:00 a.m. a lot easier than when you're older.

KEYES: There's that.

GEEWAX: So to some degree, they're going to want people who can work those crazy hours and keep their eyes open.

KEYES: So who's doing the actual hiring this season?

GEEWAX: Well, you know, here's something that's kind of interesting. As I looked through statistics on who's hiring and what's going on, so much of the sales are shifting to online these days that, really, where a lot of the hiring is is tied to that online world where it's - FedEx has announced they're going to add 20,000 workers. The Postal Service is adding workers. Warehouses are adding workers, so you know, if you keep that in mind that - don't just think about standing at the perfume counter at the department store, but think about standing at a warehouse at 3:00 in the morning. And you may find that your access to higher paying jobs for the season really increases if you keep in mind the online part of it.

KEYES: What kind of pay do seasonal workers make?

GEEWAX: Well, some of these, you know - the jobs in run of the mill retail stores can be minimum wage plus, you know, something like $8, $9 an hour. But if you get some of those warehouse jobs, the FedEx type jobs, those can be $11, $14 an hour. So they're a little more physically demanding and some of the hours are even crazier, but you know, when you look at things like where are people shopping this year, it's more those tablets. You know, Amazon has the Kindle Fire that is expected to be a big seller this year.

KEYES: Right.

GEEWAX: That'll be an online sale. iPad 2. That's, again, something that people tend to buy online. So, you know, that's really where the growth is more than in the retail sector of just standing still in a store.

KEYES: Do these jobs last long enough for the people to be eligible for unemployment benefits after, usually?

GEEWAX: It depends on how long you're considered seasonal. Some people start in September and maybe last way into January. It depends on state to state, but the important thing for a lot of people to remember as they look for these jobs is if you want to become a full time worker do a good job because a lot of employers use this as almost a certain kind of a beauty pageant.

I mean, retail work - there's a lot of turnover. People find that they have to stay home with the kids or whatever. Their circumstances change, so there are openings from time to time in the retail world and if you do a good job during the seasonal hiring period, you make a good impression and you might find that, in February, you get a call back. So it's more than just a part time job. It's really a try-out for a lot of people.

KEYES: What, though, if you need more of a long term position, does taking a seasonal job that runs three months or something like that, therefore effectively keep you out of the employment market otherwise? In other words, once you're done with the three months, it leaves you in the lurch?

GEEWAX: Well, there are opportunity costs. You could say, well, if I'm working a seasonal job at Wal-Mart, then I'm not applying for a good job that will last, you know, a permanent job someplace else. On the other hand, if you've been out of work for a long time, you could be viewed as sort of damaged goods and the employer no longer knows - do you really know how to show up on time? Do you come to work clean and sober? Do you do your job well?

If you get back into the workforce in a retail type job or a temporary warehouse kind of job, you prove to employers that you are a good worker, so although, yes, maybe you're taking yourself out of that job search full time from now until January. On the other hand, you're rebuilding that resume and showing that you are a good worker.

KEYES: All right. Marilyn Geewax is NPR's senior business editor. She joined us right here at our studios in Washington, D.C. Thanks, Marilyn, as always.

GEEWAX: Oh, you're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.