These days, good help is even harder to find Hiring: With low unemployment, several new stores and choosy workers, retailers are having trouble filling jobs.

November 18, 1997|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Thanks to low unemployment, an abundance of new stores and a crop of picky student workers, retailers have been scrambling harder -- and earlier -- to line up holiday help.

With an eye on the competition, some began seasonal hiring as early as July. Others expect overtime to kick into overdrive, with managers helping to cover shifts.

"In today's competitive environment, if you aren't planning and recruiting early, you will be in trouble," said Frank Farnung, manager of Target in Bel Air. "Any time you have full employment or as close to full employment as we have, it makes it a more challenging market to hire staff."

Most people had summer vacations on their minds when Farnung started figuring holiday staffing levels in July. By September, after advertising on cable TV, he was interviewing applicants, and by October, sending the new hires through orientation. The mass discounter is still hiring the last of the 68 extra people needed for its Bel Air store.

Learning How, a Columbia-based, six-store chain specializing in educational toys and activities, started early too, gearing up first for the back-to-school season in hopes of reaching staffing levels to handle the Christmas season.

Even so, "We're short-handed," said Tim Pyle, director of operations. "It's been difficult this year, because we're a little more selective," recruiting employees with an educational background.

To compensate, the chain already has called on managers from its stores and headquarters to pitch in and work extra hours, Pyle said.

Last year, retailers boosted staffing for the holidays by 4.3 percent, up from the 3.9 percent average over the past five years, according to the National Retail Federation.

In October, unemployment hit a 24-year low, with the jobless rate sinking to 4.7 percent. Consumer confidence remains at a 28-year high.

"It's difficult to find people in general," said Brenda W. Knight, manager of the Annapolis branch of employment agency Manpower Inc., which has been supplying retailers with employees to wrap gifts, take catalog orders and staff shipping and receiving centers.

Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retailers Association, said some of his members have struggled with finding qualified help, especially those paying minimum wage -- $5.15 an hour.

"I'm hearing it more this year than I did last year," Saquella said. Consequently, "retailers are more likely to have a lot of people part-time and increase the hours."

Some are finding workers scarce for the second year in a row.

"Each year it's more and more difficult because of such a demand from all the new stores opening," said David Adler, director of purchasing and marketing for Greetings & Readings in Loch Raven Plaza in Baltimore County, a specialty retailer of books, gifts, office supplies and seasonal items -- which started hiring after Labor Day.

Others said they have a seen a drop in employees' commitment, with students often calling in sick or unwilling to give up Saturday nights for a part-time job.

"People want to make extra money, but they don't want to work the extra hours," said Barry Meninger, vice president and general manager of Stebbins Anderson in Towson.

But low unemployment rates don't necessarily mean shortages for all retailers, especially because welfare reform should funnel more people into the work force, said Don Alderson, a research economist with the Regional Economic Studies Program at Towson University. Retailers located in areas with higher costs of living, such as Howard County, are likely feeling the pinch more, he said.

Because of the importance of the season -- which accounts for about one fifth to a quarter of annual sales -- some retailers require all employees to work more at the end of the year. For instance, Wells Discount Liquors on York Road hires no seasonal help, said manager Chuck Eney. But when hiring throughout the year, he said, "We let folks know if you can't work Thanksgiving to the end of the year, we're not going to hire you now."

Pub Date: 11/18/97

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