Retailers begin hiring frenzy for the holidays

HARLINGEN — Maribel Jacquez is bracing for her biggest hiring day of the year.

On Tuesday, the general manager at JC Penney plans to hire employees to work during the holiday season as part of the company’s second annual National Hiring Day.

“We’re building on the success we had last year,” Jacquez said Friday.

The local store hired 50 to 60 part-time employees last year to work during the store’s busiest time of the year.

“We’re looking for associates to fill a variety of positions,” Jacquez said from her office at the store in Valle Vista Mall.

In Harlingen, retailers such as JC Penney expect to hire enough seasonal workers to curb the area’s 6.2 percent jobless rate — about 2 to 2.5 percent higher than the state average, Pat Hobbs, executive director of Cameron Workforce Solutions, said.

“It’s significant,” Hobbs said of the number of part-time employees who take seasonal jobs from about Thanksgiving to early 2019 across the Rio Grande Valley. “It’s an impactful number of temporary short-term jobs during the holidays. They’re stocking and building inventory for the sales.”

This week, big retailers such Target, Kohl’s and Bass Pro Shops are also holding national hiring events aimed at drawing seasonal workers to their stores.

Across the country, America’s retailers and shipping companies are looking happily forward to a robust holiday shopping season. There’s just one concern: Who will stock the shelves, pack the orders and ring up customers?

The U.S. job market is the tightest it’s been in five decades, consumer confidence is near an 18-year high and online shopping is surging. Companies that depend on holiday season sales need more workers at a time when the ranks of the unemployed have dwindled to their lowest level since the recession.

Envisioning an even tougher struggle than they’ve had in recent years, many companies are taking steps they’ve not tried before. More of them are offering higher pay. They’re holding national hiring days. They’re dangling bonuses. They’re providing more full-time, rather than part-time, work. Some warehousing companies that fear they still won’t be able to fill enough jobs, are turning to automation.

“I can’t remember the last time it was this tight,” said Tony Lee, a vice president at the Society for Human Resource Management. “You are going to see a real battle for seasonal employees.”

At 3.7 percent, the unemployment rate is at a 49-year low, and the government says a record 6.9 million job openings are being advertised — more than the number of unemployed Americans.

With more job seekers able to choose among employers, many companies have rushed to begin their seasonal hiring earlier than before. Kohl’s, the nationwide discount chain, with 1,100 stores, tried to get a jump on its rivals by advertising seasonal jobs back in late June.

“We are hiring seasonal associates earlier than ever,” said Ryan Festerling, Kohl’s head of human resources.

UPS is holding its first-ever nationwide job fair next week. In 170 locations, applicants can have interviews on the spot, and driver candidates can schedule a road test. The Atlanta company had been caught off-guard last year when early holiday shipments swamped its network. On its job-fair day — which it’s dubbing “Brown Friday”— UPS hopes to hire up to 40,000 of the more than 100,000 seasonal workers it will need.

Target wants to hire 120,000 seasonal workers, 20 percent more than last year. The company has raised its starting wage by a dollar to $12 an hour, and is offering a new perk: It will randomly select one hourly worker at each store and distribution center to receive a $500 gift card and $500 donation to a local community organization of their choice.

Angie Thompson, a Target spokeswoman, said the higher wage and other inducements appear to be paying off. Applications jumped 20 percent in the first week after they were announced compared with the same period last year.

In 2017, Target raised its minimum hourly pay by $2, to $11, which it says helped produce 60 percent more applicants. The company is further raising its minimum wage, in stages, to $15 by 2020.

Yet Amazon beat it to the punch just last week by announcing that it would boost its starting hourly wage to $15 on Nov. 1.

“ It’s an investment in the future growth of the company and to ensure that we can continue to hire, retain, and develop the best talent for years to come,” said Dave Clark, Amazon’s senior vice president of worldwide operations.

Steve Fusek, who owns Fusek’s True Value Hardware in Indianapolis, says he had already found it a challenge to find workers who could reliably show up on time. Making matters worse, his store is just 10 miles from an Amazon warehouse. Now, even though Amazon’s jobs are more stressful and demanding, he expects to have to raise his starting hourly pay by a dollar or two from $10 to compete with Amazon.

“ Whether they want to work there (Amazon) or not, that is the new norm,” Fusek said.

It’s an unusual shift. In the retail industry, the huge store chains used to be known for paying less, not more, than smaller competitors.

“ It’s even tougher for them to compete when the big chains — which traditionally had paid the lowest minimum wage — are now paying more,” Lee said. “You’re going to see everyone forced to raise wages.”

Walmart plans to manage the holiday rush by providing more hours to its part-time workers, a step it implemented just two years ago. Some stores may hire additional seasonal employees, it said.

“ There has been a shift because the job market is so strong,” said Andrew Flowers, an economist at Indeed. “To find workers, you pretty much have to offer them a full-time job.”

But in Harlingen, Jacquez is planning to hire sales reps, cashiers, stockers, beauty consultants and salon stylists.

“ It’s all based on their experience,” she said. “It’s good customer-service skills, willingness to work with positive attitude — energetic and passionate about customer service.”

At JC Penney, seasonal workers can go on to careers with the company, Jacquez said.

“ Based on performance, they have the opportunity to stay on and maybe have a long- term career with JC Penney,” she said. “Some of our best talent started as seasonal workers. A lot of the general managers started as seasonal workers or part-time workers.”

Nationwide, JC Penney hired about 40,000 employees on its first National Hiring Day last year, company spokesman Carter English stated.

“ We call them warriors,” Jacquez said. “That’s our spirit. Our warriors are associates who drive sales. They are all about customer service.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.