Holiday hiring picture gets a bit merrier

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Macy’s, Toys R Us, Pier 1, American Eagle Outfitters and Borders all plan to hire more temporary holiday workers this year than last, emboldened by several months of sales gains and a slowly improving economy.

The jobs probably won’t be enough to be a dent in the nation’s nearly 10 percent unemployment rate, but for Americans desperate for some work, they’re far more than an early Christmas present.

“I’m trying to do anything at this point,” said Nancy Hoagland, who was laid off from her marketing job in May and has been working part-time as a cashier at a golf club near her home in Littleton, Colo., to pay the bills.

On hearing that stores might add more jobs this holiday season, she said she might stop by Kohl’s department store on the way home to see if she could fill out an application.

“My husband and I could be facing foreclosure if we don’t get (steady employment) secured in the next couple of months. I’ve never faced anything like that in my life,” she said.

Retailers will add between 550,000 and 650,000 jobs this holiday season, according to an updated forecast from the national outsourcing firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas, said spokesman James Pedderson. That’s significantly more than the 501,400 added last year. But it’s still well below the 720,800 added in 2007, just before the recession began.

The holidays are crucial to retailers, accounting for 40 percent of annual sales in some cases. Retailers have seen modest sales gains in recent months, easing fears of a double-dip recession. Another positive sign: Americans’ incomes have risen slightly but steadily this year.

But it’s not clear whether those bright spots will offset pessimism among shoppers. Sales are still far below pre-recession levels, and consumer confidence is at its lowest point since February.

Most retailers plan to hire more workers or the same amount as last year, according to a survey of 20 major U.S. retailers, including J.C. Penney Co., Abercrombie & Fitch Co., and Pier 1.

“In general it looks more positive than we had anticipated,” said Maryam Morse, a national retail practice leader at Philadelphia-based consulting firm Hay Group, which conducted the survey.

Retail experts have predicted Americans will spend 1 to 3 percent more this holiday season – less than the 4 percent year-to-year growth in healthier times, but better than nothing as far as the stores as concerned.

Some of them are being aggressive to take advantage. Toys R Us, for example is hiring 10,000 more seasonal workers than last year to staff 600 temporary stores it’s opening for the holidays. Many of those stores are in shopping malls that were left without toy stores after KB Toys went out of business in 2008.

Others are making more modest adjustments. Macy’s last week said it was increasing seasonal hiring slightly to about 65,000 because it expects better holiday revenue than last year, though it wouldn’t specify how many more it was.

Pier 1, American Eagle and Borders also said they are slightly increasing their seasonal staff this year. Other big chains, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Best Buy Co., expect hiring to be flat.

They’ll have a big pool of people to pick from.

Page Farris, co-owner of the Merriment home decor store in Ridgeland, Miss., is looking for two part-time sales clerks to help out this holiday season. Usually, she’d look to hire college students.

This year, she’s already gotten roughly 25 applications, and from a much wider age range. “I’m seeing people walking in the door that have (college) degrees and years of experience,” Farris said.

Retail jobs can range from minimum wage, $7.25 per hour, for those with little experience to $25 to $40 an hour for experienced sales leaders at high-end stores.

But while part-time work might help make ends meet, the bigger picture is murkier. There is still heavy competition for any job.

It would take an enormous burst in hiring to change the unemployment rate in a civilian labor force of more than 154 million people, of which 14.9 million are counted as unemployed.

The Labor Department’s unemployment rate is seasonally adjusted to reflect the temporary jobs created during the holiday season, so hiring would have to rise significantly beyond the usual seasonal adjustment to show up in the numbers, said department spokesman Tom Nardone.

An average of 4.7 people vie for each open job, according to Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C. The economy lost 8.4 million jobs in 2008 and 2009 and the private sector isn’t creating enough new positions to replace them.

Even temporary jobs are welcome in that environment, Shierholz said.

“It can definitely make people’s holiday season better.”