In the midst of a recession, surrounded by drastic discounts, inventory reduction sales and vacant storefronts, scores of area retailers are begging for more help.
At the Hunt Valley Mall alone last week, 17 stores displayed window signs appealing for job applicants.
There were at least 10 stores posting signs at the Annapolis Mall, three at Reisterstown Road Plaza, two at the Glen Burnie Mall and even one at the Mondawmin Mall in economically hard-pressed West Baltimore.
Some stores are enticing applicants with a selection of work schedules and generous employee discounts. Most want full-time or part-time sales people, but some seek experienced or trainee managers.
This comes at a time when unemployment statewide has hit 6 percent and Baltimore's jobless rate is nearly 10 percent.
Curtis Kane, spokesman for the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, says the jobs go begging because they're mostly boring, low-pay positions with inconvenient hours.
Store managers say they can't pay enough to attract reliable workers who will remain on the job for more than a few months.
And most of the jobs seem to be in suburban areas, where transportation poses problems for those who need work but can't afford cars.
$4.25 TO $5 AN HOUR
Starting pay in retail jobs typically ranges from $4.25 to $5 an hour, somewhat more for managers. While these are often referred to as minimum-wage jobs, they actually pay more than the U.S. minimum of $3.80 an hour. The minimum wage will increase to $4.25 on April 1.
Even so, government figures indicate that retail wages are not high enough to attract those who have to support families.
For example, the Congressional Budget Office says, the
breadwinner for a family of three would have to receive $5.25 an hour this year to stay above the poverty line of $10,930 a year.
As a consequence, "It's more difficult now than in the past for workers, unless they are teens living at home or otherwise not responsible for a household, to make it on the minimum wage," said Charles McMillion, senior fellow of Johns Hopkins University's Institute of Policy Studies.
That's especially true if getting to work requires a car.
As a result, most of the entry-level retail jobs go to younger workers without roots or commitment to their work.
Store managers complain that many young people lack the self-discipline and work ethic needed to make themselves attractive to hire and valuable to hold onto.
"Our sign is up year-round," said Brian Martin, 26, manager of the Lee's Ice Cream and Pizza Alley store in Towson. He's looking now for delivery help.
Although drivers can earn $7 to $11 an hour with tips, "the turnover is very high," he said. The store, which employs no more than seven to 10 at any given moment, nevertheless employed 52 people in 1990.
"It's not fun work to do, and it doesn't pay real well," Martin admitted.
The "positions available" sign is also up year-round at Tuerkes, a luggage store at Hunt Valley Mall. Some days, no one applies; other days four or five will come in.
"I think our difficulty is what we pay," said Dawn Irwin, assistant manager, who starts inexperienced salespeople at $4.50 an hour.
Most applicants are students, or people with full-time jobs elsewhere. Many turn down job offers because of inconvenient hours. "Most people don't want to work weekends," she said.
BOSS CAN DEAL WITH IT
Many retailers simply prefer the nuisance of continually recruiting and training new people to the expense of paying people a wage that buys their loyalty, said Katharine Abraham, associate professor of economics at the University of Maryland College Park.
"There's just not that much training required, so that means the people you have are potentially pretty easily replaced by new people," she said.
Not everyone agrees.
"These people aren't keeping wages down because they want to," said McMillion. "The competition is brutal, and we've clearly overbuilt in the retail areas. Everybody knows this, and there are a lot of retail stores going under. Everybody is trying to keep costs down as much as possible."
Aggravating the problem is a relatively small pool of 16- to 22-year-olds -- those in the age group most likely to fill these minimum-wage jobs.
The "baby-boomers" have gone to work full time now, McMillion said, and "there's been a contraction in the rate of growth of that [16 to 22-year-old age group] which I think is going to continue to put pressure on retail sales and the hospitality industry in general for years to come."
But "one of of the beauties of the market is that it will correct itself," he said. Retail businesses that can't compete, McMillion said, will suffer "a squeezing out." The contraction already has begun, and retail failures have sent ripple effects through the real estate and construction trades for the past 18 months.
In the meantime, many retailers confront perplexing labor problems.
The Jade Gallery, an oriental shop at Hunt Valley, was forced to close for a time last month when the owner was unable to find someone to mind the store.
The owner "was looking for someone more stable, more experienced to give a good image," said the 54-year-old man hired this month to reopen the place. "They don't want a teen-ager in a place like this."
The man, who asked not to be identified, said he lives mostly on income from rental properties. "I don't really have to work," he said. The job "just pays for the little extras, which I don't want to take money out of my savings account for."
Nancy Ferner, manager at the Matthews Hallmark store at Hunt Valley, said she had only two responses in three days to the sign she placed in her window.
MANY AREN'T DESIRABLE
"The average person out there looking for a job doesn't necessarily have the outgoing, friendly personality we want in order to present the company image," she complained.
The absence of discipline and a strong work ethic among young workers is a common complaint. McMillion believes it's a valid one.
"There have been many, many reports from business associations all over the country who have said that even more important than the lack of skills is the lack of discipline and work ethic among a very large percentage of young, non-college educated youth today," he said.
At Lee's Ice Cream in Towson, Brian Martin said most of his employees are Towson State or Goucher college students, and the job "is just not that important to them." Typically, when they tire of the work, they just start calling in sick, or simply stop showing up for work.
Exasperated retailers say young people place little value on their jobs, in part because there are so many similar jobs.
"You see the [help-wanted] signs," Ferner said, gesturing to the mall outside. "They don't need it." Some young employees at the mall have worked in three or four different stores, she said.
McMillion blames drugs and the "easy-money culture" that has developed in some communities in recent years, and the increase in single-parent families.
Kids see their parents struggling despite their education and "there's not the incentive to stay in school or to try to work their way up as there might have been," he said.
"I think it also stems from the depressed wage levels that many younger workers, particularly those without college educations, have to look forward to," McMillion said.
"These [retail] jobs are dead-end jobs, and these kids know they're dead-end jobs. There is not the incentive to work hard and impress the boss because in many of these retail outlets where you come in is pretty much where you'll go out."