The scram­ble for HOL­I­DAY SEA­SON WORK­ERS al­ready near fever pitch

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - BUSINESS - BY CHRISTO­PHER RU­GABER AND ANNE D’INNOCENZIO

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.

In Ten­nessee, unem­ploy­ment in Au­gust was be­low the U.S. av­er­age at 3.6 per­cent. The Ten­nessee Ca­reer Cen­ters last week listed 191,147 jobs across the state, or 54 per­cent more jobs than the 123,900 un­em­ployed Ten­nesseans who were look­ing for work in Au­gust, ac­cord­ing to the Tennesseee De­part­ment of La­bor and Work­force De­vel­op­ment.

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.

Sak­e­ria Craw­ford, who will start a start a sea­sonal pack­age-han­dling job with UPS next month, will earn about $13 an hour — the most she’s ever made. Craw­ford, 24, who lives in At­lanta, hopes to stay on in a full-time per­ma­nent job af­ter the hol­i­days. About one-third of UPS full-time em­ploy­ees be­gan as part-timers. Craw­ford is us­ing the time be­fore the job starts to line up day­care for her son, nearly 4, for whom she hopes the job will also mean a brighter Christ­mas.

“I’m very, very happy that I even have the op­por­tu­nity,” Craw­ford said. “I need some­thing sta­ble.”

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.

Ama­zon, the na­tion’s sec­ond-largest pri­vate em­ployer af­ter Wal­mart, says it wants to hire ap­pli­cants quickly. Its on­line job ads stress not what is re­quired but what isn’t: “No re­sume. No in­ter­view.”

Ap­pli­cants who have an in­for­mal face-to-face meet­ing at a hir­ing event and who match Ama­zon’s re­quire­ments can be of­fered a job on the spot.

With ful­fill­ment cen­ters in Chat­tanooga and Charleston, Ten­nessee, Ama­zon is one of the big­gest em­ploy­ers in South­east Ten­nessee, swelling its full- and part-time staff to nearly 10,000 in the Chat­tanooga re­gion dur­ing the busy hol­i­day ship­ping sea­son.

With lesser re­sources, smaller re­tail­ers are strug­gling to keep up with the higher pay and greater perks. It def­i­nitely doesn’t help if a re­tailer has to com­pete with an Ama­zon lo­ca­tion.

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.”

Ra­dial, an e-com­merce com­pany based in King of Prus­sia, Penn­syl­va­nia, says its most com­pet­i­tive mar­kets are places where Ama­zon and UPS also have op­er­a­tions, as in Lex­ing­ton, Ken­tucky, or Reno, Ne­vada, where Ama­zon has a ware­house.

Ra­dial, which fills on­line orders for such re­tail­ers as Shoe Car­ni­val, PetS­mart and Kate Spade, has had to of­fer more perks than be­fore. It wants to re­cruit more than 20,000 work­ers for its 22 dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ters and five cus­tomer call cen­ters.

Sean McCart­ney, an ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent, said Ra­dial raised hourly pay for its hol­i­day work­ers in four more mar­kets than it did last year, though he wouldn’t say which ones. The com­pany be­gan ad­ver­tis­ing for some hol­i­day jobs in June, a month ear­lier than in 2017. Ra­dial is also of­fer­ing bonuses of $1,000 or more in the most com­pet­i­tive mar­kets to those who work dur­ing the cru­cial “Black Fri­day” week­end af­ter Thanks­giv­ing. That bonus is help­ing keep Linda Con­nor-Lewis happy about her job pack­ing on­line orders at Ra­dial’s ware­house in Louisville, Ken­tucky, even though her email in­box is stuffed with in­vi­ta­tions to job fairs at ri­val com­pa­nies. Though Con­nor-Lewis, 54, al­ready has a per­ma­nent job with Ra­dial, she ex­pects to share in the hol­i­day bo­nanza: She plans to work 30 more hours of work a week on top of her cur­rent 40-hour sched­ule and ex­pects to earn more in hol­i­day bonuses than she did last year.

Even so, Ra­dial is us­ing more au­to­ma­tion to help keep up and has in­stalled ro­bot­ics in the or­der-pick­ing sec­tion at its Louisville fa­cil­ity. McCart­ney es­ti­mates that the au­to­ma­tion will re­duce phys­i­cal la­bor by 15 per­cent to 20 per­cent in that area.

At XPO Lo­gis­tics, a firm that spe­cial­izes in ship­ping ap­pli­ances, fur­ni­ture, and other large items that Amer­i­cans are in­creas­ingly will­ing to or­der on­line, plans are to hire 8,000 work­ers — one-third more than last year. XPO is also in­stalling 5,000 ro­bots in its ware­houses in the United States and Europe.

“The com­bi­na­tion of man plus ma­chine is the best way to give our cus­tomers an edge,” said Bradley Ja­cobs, the com­pany’s CEO.

Ja­cobs said the ro­bots, which lift en­tire shelves and bring them to work­ers, should en­able the com­pany’s ware­house work­ers to raise their pro­duc­tiv­ity. They will be able to pack 200 items an hour, up from 80 be­fore­hand.

Re­tail­ers are post­ing far more full-time jobs com­pared with last year, and fewer part­time po­si­tions, ac­cord­ing to re­search by In­deed, a job-list­ing web­site. The pro­por­tion of re­tail jobs that are part time, like sales as­so­ci­ates at cloth­ing stores, plum­meted this year com­pared with 2017.

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.”

“There has been a shift be­cause the job mar­ket is so strong. To find work­ers, you pretty much have to of­fer them a full-time job.” AN­DREW FLOW­ERS, AN ECON­O­MIST AT IN­DEED

GETTY IM­AGES/STAFF PHOTO IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY CINDY DEIFENDERFER

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