The economic downturn has battered the U.S. job market, most notably the retail sector, which hires thousands of temporary holiday workers when consumer confidence and spending are riding high.
But as the ranks of the unemployed grew, seasonal job growth slowed dramatically in 2008 to just 384,300 hires, nearly 50 percent fewer than in 2007.
And while experts say the outlook for holiday hiring appears a little brighter this year than last, competition for openings is expected to remain stiff as more workers compete to fill fewer jobs.
Companies typically start hiring in October for jobs that usually last until the end of the year. But the economy has prompted some businesses to delay hiring.
One outplacement firm, Chicago-based Challenger, Gray & Christmas, expects only a slight improvement in retail hiring compared with last year, which saw the lowest seasonal employment growth in nearly 20 years.
And a survey by the Philadelphia-based consulting firm Hay Group found that 57 percent of retailers, who depend heavily on seasonal workers, intended to actually reduce staff levels for the holiday season.
Companies are trying to gauge how sales are doing before committing to hiring, though, he said. "We're seeing that the hiring trend is a little later in the season."
In addition to retail, shipping and delivery services traditionally depend on extra help through the holiday season.
A UPS spokesman said the company plans to hire about 50,000 seasonal workers nationwide this year, fewer than in the past because of the economic downturn.
On Long Island, the U.S. Postal Service said it had 60 openings in its Bethpage location for the period, compared with 300 openings at three different sites last year. The decrease is due to the sour economy and the general decline in mail volume, a postal official said.
Those looking for holiday jobs have plenty of company: Unemployment on Long Island was 7.4 percent as of September, compared with 5.1 percent in September 2008.
But a holiday job may end up providing more than a shopping discount: A survey by CareerBuilder found that 31 percent of companies nationwide say they are likely to hire a seasonal worker for a full-time position.
Here's a look at some sectors for holiday hiring:
Retail. Some major retailers, such as JCPenney and Macy's, say they expect about the same level of hiring as last year.
A spokeswoman for JCPenney said generally stores add between 10 percent and 15 percent to the normal staffing during the season. Part-time positions include customer service roles, cashiers and associates for "hot zones" for highlighted merchandise.
Salary information was not available, but stores may have weekend schedules available. For more information, job seekers should visit jcpenney.net/careers or store kiosks. (Click here to connect.)
Macy's, which declined to give specific figures, said it expected about the same level of openings for seasonal support associates. More information is available at macysjobs.com. (Click here to connect.)
Target said it planned to hire fewer workers than in previous years because of a new plan to offer cross-training for current employees across departments.
"We know we're going to be hiring less," spokesman Kyle Thompson said. For instance, he said, a cashier may want to work additional shifts in the stockroom.
The company has been seeing less turnover, he said, and wants to offer opportunities first to workers who already have "the most loyalty to us." For more information visit target.com/careers. (Click here to connect.)
A spokeswoman for Walmart would only say that hiring levels would depend on each store. While the pay rate for temporary jobs was not available, the average wage in New York State for regular, full-time workers is $11.86 per hour. More information is available at walmartstores.com or at store kiosks. (Click here to connect.)
U.S. Postal Service. This year the agency had planned to hire 60 workers at the Bethpage Logistics and Distribution Center. Temporary casual mailhandlers earn $12 an hour, with extra pay for night shifts. More information is at usps.com/employment. (Click here to connect.)
UPS. The international shipping company plans to hire 2,300 temporary workers on Long Island this year, at a starting salary of $8.50 an hour. For more jobs information visit upsjobs.com. (Click here to connect.)
FedEx. FedEx Ground plans to add temporary workers in November and December as needed. Part-time package handlers earn $10.50 an hour lifting and carrying packages. For more information, visit fedex.com/us/careers. (Click here to connect.)
Ed Jacobs, president of National Event Connection, a corporate event planning firm based in Ronkonkoma, said he expected this year to be better than 2008.
Two years ago, he said, companies threw elaborate parties at mansions or country clubs. But last year, "they didn't do the events at all," Jacobs said. "A lot didn't have the means."
This year, he said, companies are thinking of more creative ways to celebrate, like bringing festivities into the office.
Part-time positions for catering and party events can include servers, coat check staffers, kitchen help, DJs and lighting technicians.
Jacobs added that he expected applicants to include people who already have full-time jobs but who need more income.
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