Retailers are cutting back on hiring sales clerks, stockroom employees and other temporary workers for the holidays - an indication that they expect another dour year-end shopping season.
And that means the Marylanders accustomed to getting a holiday job are going to find one of the most competitive job markets in recent years. The average manager will hire 16 percent fewer workers this holiday season, according to a nationwide survey by SnagAJob.com, a job search site for hourly workers; other employment surveys offer similar forecasts.
With September unemployment rates at 9.8 percent nationally and 7.2 percent in Maryland, many people will be looking for seasonal work until the economy improves and they can find a full-time job, employment experts say. At the same time, workers hit by pay cuts or furloughs might be looking for another paycheck to help make ends meet.
Among those competing for seasonal work is Loretta McKenstry.
The Parkville mother of three lost her state government job in September and has been looking for a new one ever since. She hopes to have better luck as retailers and other companies ramp up hiring for the holiday season, which traditionally starts the day after Thanksgiving. A temporary job is better than no job, says McKenstry, who has applied to several retailers and searched on Web sites such as SnagAJob.com.
"Usually every year there is a big pickup for the holiday season so maybe I'll be able to find something," said McKenstry, who noted that she didn't qualify for unemployment because she was a contract worker with the state.
The slowdown in hiring follows drastic cuts in the last holiday season. Even retailers that are hiring at 2008 levels, such as Macy's and Toys R Us, don't offer much consolation because seasonal hiring fell so much at the heart of the recession. Nationally, retailers hired 384,300 seasonal employees in 2008, down 46.7 percent from the 720,800 hired in the previous year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
UPS plans to hire 50,000 additional workers nationwide this holiday season, down from 60,000 in 2007. (The company didn't track numbers from last year.) It will hire 633 at three facilities in the Baltimore area for a variety of full-time and part-time jobs, including package handlers and driver helpers.
"For the past year, hiring trends have been falling," said Dan McMackin, a spokesman for UPS. "There are a lot of people looking for work. I think that's a good thing for us. We're going to have a lot of qualified candidates."
"It's certainly going to be a competitive seasonal hiring environment this year because we have people who are unemployed along with people who would normally be looking for this kind of work," said Allison Nawoj, a CareerBuilder career adviser.
SnagAJob.com, which surveyed hiring managers, said they're seeing 25 percent more applications per job compared with last year. Companies do much of the hiring in October so they can train people in November for the start of the season.
The holiday period is important for retailers because it's when a large part of the year's profits are made. This year, some economists and analysts are watching holiday spending as an indicator of whether the economy is beginning to rebound and consumers are becoming more comfortable with opening their wallets.
The National Retail Federation has predicted a 1 percent sales decrease, the second-weakest holiday season since it began tracking sales more than 40 years ago. Last year, the group reported that sales dropped 3.4 percent in November and December.
But it costs money to recruit people and train them. Many employers are choosing to give current workers more hours instead, the SnagAJob.com survey found.
"They do have a positive outlook and think that business levels will be similar to last year, but they're looking to save money," said Cathy McCarthy, senior vice president of marketing at SnagAJob.com.
Not all retailers are pulling back, however.
Video game retailer GameStop Inc. said it plans to hire about 15,000 seasonal part-time workers nationwide - about the same number as in 2007 and 2008.
Toys R Us is hiring 35,000 people, also about the same as the past two years. It will hire "toy-trained" workers to help parents pick out gifts, and will give current workers extra hours throughout the season, the company said.
Best Buy is one of the few companies increasing the number of holiday hires as it expects sales to rise for the year. The company has said it has benefited from the closing of competitor Circuit City a year ago and that consumers are starting to buy electronics again, but only at the right price.
"We are hiring more people this year for seasonal sales than we did last year," CEO Brian J. Dunn said during a recent holiday news briefing in New York. "We're going to have better year-over-year performance."
Macy's has already hired some seasonal workers and said the majority would be hired by Thanksgiving. It's hiring the same number of workers companywide as last year, and is getting interest from the unemployed as well as those looking for second jobs. The company is also bringing back people who might have worked for them past holiday seasons.
"We are seeing a lot of interest in many of our locations in Baltimore," said Elina Kazan, a Macy's spokeswoman.