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The Ghost of Holiday Hiring Past
by Nick Beleiciks
Published Oct-8-2012

Retailers and package delivery companies rely on the holiday season to provide an end-of-year boost in sales that makes operating during the rest of the year worthwhile. Some businesses hire extra workers, often on a temporary basis, to get them through this busy time of year. The number of jobs added and people hired by "holiday hiring" industries with strong holiday employment patterns fell during the recession and rebounded in 2010, but did not reach levels seen in earlier years. The 2011 buildup was below average, but some early hiring by nonstore retailers means the hiring season was a little better than the buildup numbers reflect.

Three seasons of improved holiday buildup and hiring mean happier holidays since the recession, but the number of seasonal workers does not seem to be heading back to prerecession levels. It's too early to say how well staffed the stores will be on opening day of this year's holiday shopping season ("Black Friday" - November 23, 2012), but one forecast suggests that retailers could add more than the typical number of workers this season.

The Holiday Buildup
"These are but shadows of the things that have been," said the Ghost. "They have no consciousness of us."

Oregon's job buildup in industries with strong holiday employment patterns was 10,344 in 2011, fewer than the decade's average buildup of over 11,500. The "holiday buildup" is one way to measure holiday hiring activity. The holiday buildup table (Table 1) shows the net job gain in industries where employment grows during the holiday season and is cut soon after the New Year. Holiday buildups of the last decade ranged from a high of 14,890 in 2005 to a financial crisis-induced low of less than half that in 2008. The October through December jobs buildup in the holiday hiring industries that year fell to 7,071, just 6 percent more than September's level, far below the decade's average buildup of 10 percent.

The holiday hiring retail industries included in Table 1 are based on the March 2009 Bureau of Labor Statistics article Holiday Season Hiring in Retail Trade. Jobs at postal services (both private and federal) and couriers and messengers have been added to give a more complete picture of industries with strong holiday employment patterns.

Although there was less of an overall holiday buildup in Oregon in 2011 than in the prior year, a few industries had larger buildups than in past seasons. The 2011 and 2001-2010 average buildups for each industry are shown in Table 2. The largest buildup occurs at general and merchandise stores, which added 4,273 jobs in the closing months of 2011, more than in a typical year. Health and personal care stores and clothing and accessory stores had a larger buildup in 2011 than their average buildup last decade. Other types of retail - like furniture and home furnishing stores, electronics and appliance stores, miscellaneous stores - have reduced their recent holiday buildups.

Unusual events in two holiday hiring industries lowered the total holiday buildup in 2011. The bookstore chain Borders closed all its stores just as the holiday buildup was getting underway. The Borders job losses helped make the 387 seasonal buildup in sporting goods, hobby, and book stores the smallest during the decade. On a brighter note, earlier-than-usual seasonal hiring by nonstore retailers in August means they probably hired an average amount of workers in 2011, but the hiring occurred before the normal hiring season starts.

Postal services and couriers and messengers deliver many of the packages purchased during the holiday season and their holiday workers account for about 15 percent of the total holiday jobs buildup. Private couriers and messengers delivered 25 percent more jobs in 2011's holiday season than in a typical year, the largest buildup rate of these seasonal industries. The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) used to add over 500 jobs in Oregon each holiday season, but that number has fallen drastically (along with overall USPS employment) to essentially no build up in recent years. The number of workers at private postal services (subcontractors of the USPS) has tripled in Oregon over the last decade, but with an annual average of just 125 jobs last year, their holiday buildup is not offsetting the decline in USPS seasonal jobs.

Holiday buildups inevitably lead to corresponding post-holiday declines in the number of workers needed as businesses adjust back to the usual sales pace. By January, the number of jobs in the holiday hiring industries is usually back to the same level as the prior September, reinforcing the fact that most holiday hiring is temporary.

Table 1
2011's Holiday Buildup Was Close to Average
Oregon, 2001-2011
  September Monthly Increases Total Holiday Percent
Year Level October November December Buildup Buildup
2001 115,042 1,811 6,705 2,718 11,234 10%
2002 112,356 2,231 5,594 4,262 12,087 11%
2003 110,648 3,462 5,974 3,109 12,545 11%
2004 113,751 3,227 6,372 3,904 13,503 12%
2005 118,097 3,316 7,074 4,590 14,980 13%
2006 120,481 1,284 7,052 5,012 13,348 11%
2007 123,901 845 7,011 3,678 11,534 9%
2008 121,215 933 3,716 2,422 7,071 6%
2009 113,183 849 4,581 3,176 8,606 8%
2010 113,570 2,203 5,519 3,700 11,422 10%
2011 114,413 1,522 6,091 2,731 10,344 9%
Average 116,060 1,971 5,972 3,573 11,516 10%
* See Table 2 for a list of the selected industries      
Source: Oregon Employment Department, Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages
Table 2
August Hiring By Nonstore Retailers Not Reflected in 2011's Buildup
September to December Employment Increase
Industry 2011 Buildup 2001-2011 Average Buildup
Furniture and home furnishing stores 279 381
Electronics and appliance stores 247 506
Health and personal care stores 411 321
Clothing and accessory stores 2,216 2,139
Sporting goods, hobby, and book stores 387 886
General merchandise stores 4,273 3,668
Miscellaneous store retailers 270 357
Nonstore retailers 695 1,864
Postal services (private and federal) 202 302
Couriers and messengers 1,364 1,092
Total Holiday Hiring in Selected Industries 10,344 11,516
Source: Oregon Employment Department, Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages
The Holiday Hires
Holiday Hires in this article are workers who started a new job in the holiday hiring industries during October, November, or December with an employer they did not work for in July, August, or September. They may or may not have continued to work for that employer following the holiday season.

The holiday buildup does not give a complete picture of holiday hiring because it only measures the net change in employment levels. Turnover rates among workers in holiday hiring industries are high, so there are more people who find a new job within those industries during the holiday season than are counted in the buildup.

There were 28,601 people hired in Oregon's holiday hiring industries during the fourth quarter of 2011, well below the average of more than 36,000 each season last decade, and fewer hires than in the prior year (Graph 1). These "holiday hires" are the people who found work in one of the holiday hiring industries during the holiday season. The

number of holiday hires hovered just above 40,000 in the years leading up to the recession, but fell to 31,299 in 2008 and just 27,899 in 2009, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau's Local Employment Dynamics program.

Fourth quarter hiring accounted for about 38 percent of total hiring by holiday retailers during 2011 and about 54 percent of total hiring by private postal services and couriers and messengers (the number of holiday hires by USPS is not available). The share of annual hires getting their job during the holiday season has remained stable over the last decade. Workers hired by these industries may or may not stick around in their new job during the New Year, but there is a good chance many workers in the holiday hiring industries got their start during the holiday season.

Graph 1
Holiday hires recovered somewhat in 2011
This Year's Wish List
"You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us,"?

We won't know how this season's holiday hiring compared to prior years until it too has come to pass. High unemployment and changing shopping habits muddy the hiring picture, but we can look at employment forecasts and announcements from employers to get a hint about what the future will bring.

The September 2012 employment forecast from the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis expects Oregon's retail trade employment to grow in the fourth quarter of 2012 by 1,000 jobs more than the typical seasonal increase. The forecast is for the entire retail trade sector, not just the industries that have a lot of holiday hiring, but the implication is that the holiday buildup will be above average this year.

Holiday hiring news around Oregon has been slow but is encouraging. According to a Mail Tribune article, Harry & David announced plans to hire 4,000 seasonal jobs in its Medford, Eugene, and Ohio facilities, a seasonal tradition for the nonstore retailer. Seasonal staff levels are apparently "up substantially from last year's" hires. The department store Kohl's announced it plans to hire 10 percent more seasonal workers than it did last year, which could mean more than 400 temporary jobs. Toys R Us has said it will hire 5,000 more seasonal employees in the U.S. than it did last season.

It's difficult to foretell what future seasonal hiring patterns of retailers will be as consumers make more of their purchases online. Parcel deliverers will no doubt continue hiring holiday workers to deliver those extra packages to all the good girls and boys, but local stores may not need to as many holiday workers as in past years if their customers are doing less shopping in person.