Business & Real Estate

Holiday season hiring rebounds from recessionary doldrums

A replica of the White House, background, is part of a sprawling electric-light exhibit, Global Winter Wonderland on Monday at Cal Expo in Sacramento. With an improving economy, holiday hiring is looking up . But analysts note it’s a mixed bag, as many of the jobs are low-paying and last only for weeks.
A replica of the White House, background, is part of a sprawling electric-light exhibit, Global Winter Wonderland on Monday at Cal Expo in Sacramento. With an improving economy, holiday hiring is looking up . But analysts note it’s a mixed bag, as many of the jobs are low-paying and last only for weeks. rpench@sacbee.com

No one ever got rich working a short-term holiday job, but employment experts say this year’s expected upturn in seasonal hiring is welcome news.

Early indications are that holiday hiring – everything from delivering parcels to answering phones at customer-service centers or manning cash registers at shopping malls – is occurring at a pace far surpassing the dismal days of the recession.

“I think it’s all good news,” said Michael Bernick, a labor lawyer in San Francisco and former state Employment Development Department director. “With 15 million payroll jobs in California, these (seasonal hires) are not going to move the needle on the unemployment rate, not by a large percentage anyway. But today more than ever, just getting in the door is important.”

Pinning down precise seasonal-hiring numbers is a bit of a guessing game, as hiring is ongoing into early December. In fact, Bernick stressed that job seekers should not assume that all holiday job opportunities have been snapped up and should continue looking.

Employers in the West are projecting a 16 percent hiring increase in the fourth quarter this year, compared with the year-ago period, according to a national survey by staffing company ManpowerGroup. If that projection holds, it would be the strongest showing since 2008.

It’s easy to see the range of seasonal employment. Type in “seasonal hiring in Sacramento” on the Careerbuilder.com and Indeed.com job-search sites, for instance, and a number of recent openings show up, including a “seasonal security guard” at the Macy’s store in Downtown Plaza store (able to work Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Christmas Eve), part-time store greeters at Sprint stores to a 10-day stint as kitchen appliance “roadshow demonstrators” at $17 an hour.

And with consumer confidence up and unemployment down, some local businesses are simply busier than they’ve been in recent years.

Sacramento-based Polar Lites, which does professional-level Christmas lighting installations, will be working on 220 homes and businesses this season, according to owner Gene Sherman. That compares with about 150 in 2006, prior to the recession.

“It’s fantastic,” Sherman said, adding that his crew of 10 will be working steadily through Dec. 20.

Retail, the anchor of annual seasonal hiring, also is showing some muscle.

The National Retail Federation is projecting that U.S. retailers will hire between 730,000 and nearly 800,000 seasonal workers this year, up from around 768,000 hired in 2013.

In California, the seasonal hiring began creeping up four years ago, according to the EDD. From 2010 through 2013, a period in which employment in California was growing, EDD said retailers added an average of 106,200 jobs in the October-through-December period.

In contrast, holiday hiring totaled only 42,600 jobs in 2008, at the height of the recession.

Based on those numbers, EDD predicts that “normal” holiday hiring this year among California’s retailers will be between 105,000 and 111,000.

Dan Stephens, an EDD spokesman, cautioned that “while one might expect the improving economy to generate stronger holiday hiring in 2014, whether or not this will actually be the case is hard to predict. One should remember that consumer spending depends on earnings.”

Various employment analysts and economists have offered the same warning, noting that wages have been stagnant even as U.S. unemployment rates have declined in recent months.

Besides existing local retail stores hiring clerks and cashiers, seasonal stores are popping up at local malls. Malls such as Westfield Galleria at Roseville have seasonal options such as a Harry & David store, an Amazon pop-up store, a Go! Calendar outlet and a Hickory Farms gift center.

Beyond retail, other seasonal opportunities include work as FedEx and UPS delivery drivers or customer service reps at call centers, and staffing for Christmas tree lots and special attractions.

Locally, one of the more unusual holiday hiring opportunities this year was for Global Winter Wonderland, a holiday-themed lantern and multicultural theme park that opened this weekend at Cal Expo. Run by the Fremont-based International Culture Exchange Group, the sprawling, 17-acre exhibit uses millions of LED lights and 200,000 feet of colorful Chinese silk. It’s touted as the largest lantern festival outside of China.

About 60 Chinese workers and artisans assembled the holiday showcase – which runs through Jan. 4 on the western end of Cal Expo – and about 100 were hired at a local job fair to staff the temporary theme park. Jobs included cashiers, ticketing workers and customer service personnel.

Event founder Lulu Huang said Sacramento was a logical choice, given its “cultural diversity and multicultural history … Sacramento is a wonderful holiday destination.” Huang, who expects between 300,000 and 400,000 to visit the park during its six-week holiday run, said it will employ nearly 600, including vendors, food purveyors, ride operators and entertainers at the park’s carnival.

Seasonal hiring is robust in the region’s logistics and distribution sectors, where pay generally ranges from minimum wage to $18 an hour for qualified forklift operators, said Kelley Stewart, recruiting manager at the Sacramento office of national staffing firm Manpower.

She said one client, a Livermore distribution center stocking home goods, has seen “an intense spike” in hiring for jobs doing inventory and prepping storage shelves in anticipation of a busy buying season. “Distribution centers have to have folks in place to pull orders and package them. It takes a lot of people,” Stewart said.

Even though seasonal jobs are typically temporary, they can lead to full-time employment.

“I can tell you that more of our (temporary) talent is getting snatched up into permanent positions,” said Stewart. “The hiring temperature is heating up a little bit.”

Given the upward trend of the last four years, former EDD chief Bernick is encouraged.

“Certainly, these are not higher-paying jobs, but I think they’re important,” he said. “The numbers are considerably higher than what we saw in the recession period, and these jobs obviously provide some income and experience. … Seasonal jobs can lead to longer-term employment.”

Call The Bee’s Mark Glover, (916) 321-1184.

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