Every year around this time, thousands of workers are hired for jobs catering to holiday shoppers and usually ending in January. The work can be a short-term way to generate a paycheck. But for a select few—particularly recent graduates and prospective career-changers—the seasonal jobs could become even more.
A small percentage of these temporary recruits are offered staff positions in the months that follow—and not just behind a register, but also eventually in areas like human resources, management and finance.
Michelle Cantor, 49 years old, joined a Maison Blanche store (which later became a Macy’s) in Lafayette, La., in 1980 as a gift wrapper while in high school. When the stint ended, she was hired as a part-time sales associate and later switched to full time. After graduating from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and marketing, she moved to the company’s human-resources department. Now she works at Macy’s Inc. headquarters in Cincinnati overseeing the retailer’s online recruiting site, macysjobs.com.
Ms. Cantor says she didn’t plan on a career with Macy’s but the early experience she gained, plus the encouragement and support she received from her bosses, prompted her to reconsider. “A lot of time people have perceptions of what retail jobs are,” she says. “But once you get in and learn the culture, you learn about opportunities that you never knew existed.”
“A seasonal job is like an audition,” says Terry Foy, a human-resources vice president for Macy’s. The retailer is looking to hire an undisclosed number of support people this holiday season for its more than 850 retail stores and 25 call and distribution centers nationwide. “It’s your time to really showcase your skills.”
To be sure, demand for these helping hands is expected to be less robust this year than in years past because of the recession. Nearly half of the nation’s 25 largest retailers surveyed in September said they expect to recruit between 5% and 25% fewer seasonal workers this year than last, reports Hay Group, a human-resources consulting firm. And with unemployment at 10.2%, the competition for holiday jobs this year will be stiff.
But retailers could yet beef up their hiring plans this month if sales continue trending upward, says Maryam Morse, national retail practice leader for Hay Group. U.S. retail-sales figures for October rose 1.8% from October 2008, according to estimates based on data for 30 retailers tracked by Thomson Reuters.
Who’s Hiring Seasonal Workers?
While demand for seasonal workers is expected to be less robust this year than last because of the recession, the following retailers plan to add about the same number of seasonal workers or more this year compared with last:
Michael’s Stores Inc.
Best Buy Co.
Toys “R” Us Inc.
Job seekers can boost their odds of landing seasonal positions by offering to work flexible hours, including evenings and weekends, and on the days leading up to the holidays. “The more availability you have, the better your chances of getting hired and getting more hours,” says Steve Mullins, a recruiter for Michael’s Stores Inc. The Irving, Texas, retailer of arts and crafts supplies expects to hire about 10,000 seasonal workers this year, up from 7,300 last year; about 10% are typically recruited into staff positions, he adds.
Applicants can set themselves apart further by showing they’re familiar with their target employer’s products or services and pointing out any related experience. Emailing interviewers a thank-you note afterward, something few seasonal candidates do, is another way to stand out, adds Mr. Mullins. Hiring managers say applicants with professional backgrounds should inform interviewers about their qualifications and interest in moving into a staff position in their area of expertise. The reason: Employers often prefer to promote from within and consider seasonal workers who bring more to the table than what’s required highly attractive, says Mr. Mullins. “You’re definitely taking the best seasonal workers and considering them first for any regular positions that open up,” he says.
About 90% of United Parcel Service Inc.’s managers started out in a front-line job, says Amy Whitley, vice president of human resources, and a former UPS driver herself. Drivers and driver-helpers earn between $10 and $20 an hour. “It’s all about learning the business from the bottom up,” she says. “You get to learn how we make money, how we service customers and the importance of timeliness.”
In fact, UPS’s chief financial officer, Kurt Kuehn, started his career at the Atlanta delivery company in 1977 as a driver’s helper and later a driver for the winter holiday season. “You’re Santa’s helper,” says the 55-year-old executive.
At the time, Mr. Kuehn was on leave from his junior year at Yale University and he says he had no intention of staying at UPS beyond the holidays. The following summer he was offered a staff position and accepted. About 10 months into the job, he was promoted to supervisor. Later, upon the recommendation of the head of human resources, he completed an executive M.B.A. program on the company’s dime, which he says was the catalyst for his ascent into senior management. He landed his current position in October 2007.
Josh Brundage, 30 years old, started as a driver’s helper for the holidays. Then a junior at the University of South Florida, he was hired immediately after in January 2002 as a part-timer responsible for loading and unloading delivery trucks. Today Mr. Brundage is a full-time manager of UPS’s Lake Wales, Fla., distribution center, overseeing more than 100 employees. He is looking to hire about 50 seasonal workers, and says recruits who prove themselves could follow in his footsteps. “When we go to hire people on a permanent basis, the first people we go to are those [seasonal] helpers that really stood out as being hard workers,” he says. “It’s not just a seasonal job but a chance to get your foot in the door.”
Once you’re on board, career experts say the next step is to work diligently and volunteer to take on extra duties. This could be anything from helping out in other departments, to creating displays or taking on tasks full-time staffers might eschew. Don’t get your hopes up about doing administrative work; you may be fully qualified, but not yet trusted as a temporary staffer. After demonstrating your added value, it can be helpful to remind supervisors of an interest in full employment when the job ends.
“You just need to be assertive,” says Jo Pearson, manager of creative services for Michael’s Stores. She joined the company 23 years ago as a part-time seasonal sales associate for a store in Chesterfield, Mo. Ms. Pearson, 59, says she went out of her way to impress managers by volunteering to assist her colleagues and make crafts out of store products for display. “I was very aggressive with the fact that I wanted to make this into a full-time job come January if a position was available,” she says. “And I [made] sure they knew I had done a great job.”
Write to Sarah E. Needleman at firstname.lastname@example.org