WITH MARYLAND'S unemployment rate around 3.3 percent, you'd think merchants preparing to open stores at the Arundel Mills mall would find slim pickings when shopping for new employees.
What they have found, to their delight, is an upwardly -- or laterally -- mobile work force. A gigantic job fair for mall merchants Tuesday and Wednesday at Michael's Eighth Avenue in Glen Burnie drew more than 1,300 job seekers each day. Many applicants had jobs, but they were ready for a change.
This could be good or bad.
It's definitely good for Jim Sall, Samsonite Corp.'s district manager for Maryland and northern Virginia. He and 80 other Arundel Mills merchants were competing with one another -- and the rest of the retailing world -- for employees at a time when "Help Wanted" signs are a ubiquitous part of suburban landscapes.
Finding good workers seemed a long shot.
But Mr. Sall was astounded and enormously satisfied with the result: He received 30 resumes the first day of the job fair. He filled all six positions -- for stock clerks, supervisor and assistant manger -- on Day One. Five of his hires will leave their current jobs to work at the Arundel Mills Samsonite retail store when the mall opens Nov. 17.
"The quality of people has been excellent," a smiling Mr. Sall told a publicist hired by the Virginia-based Mills Corp., which owns the mall and organized the job fair. "I don't know how you did it. So many stores [in the region] are recruiting for the same kind of people."
They are people like Megan Krauch, 19, of Glen Burnie.
Ms. Krauch landed a job Wednesday at Totes Sunglass Station in the Mills. She plans to leave a similar full-time job at the Sunglass Hut in Linthicum.
She will bring experience to Totes. She's learned about polarized lenses, seven-layer systems and shades that cost $400 and more.
"I like it, but I don't feel that I'm going anywhere here," Ms. Krauch said of the job she's held for five months. She's convinced that she'll have an opportunity to advance at her new job.
The Mills and its merchants are emphasizing upward mobility. They don't talk about the $7-an-hour pay and eight-hour shifts. They talk about advancement from cashier to assistant manager to who-knows-what.
They didn't market the event at Michael's as a job fair. They called it a career fair.
A spokeswoman said Mills mall retailers want to emphasize that they're after people who are looking for careers in retail, not just jobs.
Many new employees will start from the first rung.
About 500 applicants participated in the Mills Access to Training and Career Help (MATCH) program run by the Mills Corp. and Anne Arundel Community College to train people to work cash registers and handle other retail chores.
Before they can climb the ladder, however, some employees will have to get to work.
Dana Nixon, of Brooklyn, was optimistic about landing a job after placing applications with 10 retailers and interviewing with four of them at the fair. And she's confident that the light rail will get her to Cromwell Station. She hopes that the shuttle bus service from Cromwell to the mall will prove reliable.
Public transportation could prove to be the mall's most important test.
Bus shelters already have been erected at the mall, but the challenge will be to weld the various services into a seamless system. The Mass Transit Administration, Connect-a-Ride buses in Anne Arundel County, Howard Transit and private companies will provide service to the mall, but they must complete plans to coordinate schedules and fares.
The mall's size and the traffic it will generate make it an ideal destination for light rail. Transportation planners should seriously consider extending the rail line from the train's BWI terminal to the Mills.
The new workers don't have much longer to wait before starting their new jobs. I peeked inside the $250 million, 1.4 million-square-foot structure on Ridge Road south of Route 100 in Harmans, and work appears to be in the final stages. Hardwood floors have been installed and the arching ceiling's skylights are in place. Scores of workers in hard hats are putting up interior walls and signs.
When it is completed, the mall will feature familiar stores such as the Burlington Coat Factory; T.J. Maxx; Saks Fifth Avenue's Off 5th outlet store; Bed, Bath & Beyond; and Old Navy.
The stores will need 3,000 employees, but, remarkably, it appears they might fill their needs with so many workers in perpetual transition.
And that good news has a flip side.
In this economy, it's not difficult to find good employees after all. The trick -- which Mills merchants may soon discover and other area retailers already know -- is finding ways to keep them.
Norris West writes editorials for The Sun from Anne Arundel County.