Experts: Seasonal Hiring Needs a Dash of Spice

Outlook for small employers good, but enticements win the war for holiday talent

By Steve Bates Oct 16, 2015
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U.S. seasonal hiring is projected to be solid in the fourth quarter of 2015, but experts warn that finding the best holiday workers won’t be easy. Employers will have to start early, estimate their staffing needs accurately, and offer competitive pay and other perks to win the war for year-end talent.

Surveys indicate that seasonal hiring will be roughly the same as or slightly higher than in 2014, with about 1 in 3 employers adding holiday staff. The retail industry looks particularly strong. According to CareerBuilder, 53 percent of retailers plan to take on holiday employees during the last three months of the year, up from 43 percent in 2014.

The outlook is also good for small employers. One-fourth of companies with 250 or fewer employees expect to hire seasonal workers, up from 21 percent a year ago, according to CareerBuilder. Seventeen percent of firms with 50 or fewer workers plan to welcome holiday help, the same as in 2014.

The overall labor economy is approaching what experts term “full employment,” with a steadily shrinking unemployment rate. Yet increases in permanent staff have not made a substantial dent in the demand for seasonal help.

People who come back to the same employer year after year for seasonal jobs are particularly valuable. “They are the nirvana of seasonal hiring,” said Katherine Jones, Ph.D., vice president, human capital management technology research, at consulting firm Deloitte. In fact, some organizations have tweaked their employee management software to create a category for seasonal hires so that those who return do not have to be subjected to the same interviews and other processes as new seasonal employees.

Estimating how many short-term employees and what types of skills will be needed—as well as where and when—is crucial, said Bobby Owens, senior vice president of staffing firm Randstad. “Try to project what you’re going to need ahead of time. You’re going to get a better workforce.”

Because of increased hiring, “It’s an employee’s market right now,” said John Elwood, president of Elwood Staffing in Columbus, Ind. He said organizations can’t hang a “help wanted” sign on the door and sit back. “You’ve got to be casting a wide net,” such as by taking advantage of staffing agencies, social media and job fairs. Referrals “are huge,” he added.

Some employers are offering perks and flexibility. However, seasonal pay is down nearly two dollars an hour to an average of $15.37 compared with 2014, according to Snagajob, a job portal for hourly workers. Snagajob reported that the average pay for holiday workers in the food service industry is $9.33 per hour in 2015. Retailers are paying an average of $9.68 per hour, while hospital industry hiring managers are offering $10.97 per hour.

However, for the most important positions, some employers provide a pay bump. Some even offer sign-on bonuses and bonuses for those who stay through their intended work period. Elwood said that most seasonal hires can’t expect to be given time off on critical days, such as right before major holidays. But, he said, some employers try to be flexible. They might say: “Tell me when you can work,” he noted. “Four days is better than zero.”

“The basic law of supply and demand is facing employers square in the face,” said Richard Wahlquist, president and CEO of the Alexandria, Va.-based American Staffing Association. “You’ve got to entice talent that might have other options than working for you.”

This challenge is particularly significant for small organizations. “It’s starting to be more difficult for small employers to stay competitive with larger employers,” said Kim Costa, a Richmond, Va.-based job search coach for Snagajob. “It’s not just about wages. Employees are looking for culture and room for growth.”

The continued shift from brick-and-mortar retail sales to e-commerce impacts the types of holiday season jobs being filled. “Employers have got to bulk up on personnel in the back office,” said Andrew Challenger, vice president of Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

The CareerBuilder survey finds that companies across all industries are hiring for a variety of positions. The leading ones are:

  • Customer service.
  • Administrative/clerical support.
  • Inventory management.
  • Hosting/greeting.
  • Shipping/delivery.

Many employers put a premium on a prospective worker’s attitude during the holidays. Costa said attitude, availability and commitment top hiring managers’ wish lists, with “experience always the fourth factor.”

Taking shortcuts on training can be costly. “Onboarding has not been taken seriously for seasonal workers,” said Deloitte’s Jones. Remedial training can take more time and harm productivity. And there are safety concerns. “You certainly will spend a lot more time with [workplace safety compliance] issues if you don’t do it right.”

Organizations should think about seasonal hires strategically, not just as bodies to plug in during last-minute emergencies, Jones said. Examine previous years’ patterns and ask “Where is my next gap going to be?” she advised. “People are missing a golden opportunity if they look at it as ‘In you go, out you go.’ ”

Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.

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