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Time's running out for those seeking holiday work

  • Story Highlights
  • Some students still looking for jobs to make extra spending money
  • National Retail Federation expects sales to grow only slightly this holiday season
  • Survey found retailers hiring fewer seasonal workers
  • Shoppers may experience some longer lines depending on when they shop
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By Steve Almasy
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(CNN) -- Nick Sciscione was standing in line at one of his favorite clothing stores when a cashier asked him if he would like to apply for a job.

With winter break approaching, it seemed like a good idea to Sciscione, an 18-year-old college sophomore who wanted to make some extra cash to spend on essentials like gas, clothes and parking tickets.

Sciscione took an application home, but decided that even though he had a solid offer from the store, he wanted to look for a better opportunity. He picked up an application from another clothing store at the Menlo Park Mall in Edison, New Jersey. This weekend he plans to look at other places to work between semesters.

"I wouldn't limit my search to just retail," said Sciscione, a dance major, adding that he thought he could pick up some hours teaching dance classes.

People like Sciscione might be wise to take the sure thing, said Daniel Butler, a vice president with the National Retail Federation. There are two things working against them: They are a little behind the curve in starting their search, and they will find that many retailers are curtailing the number of seasonal workers they will hire.

The federation forecasts that holiday sales will grow this year by 2.2 percent. The average increase for the past 10 years has been 4.4 percent.

A Web site that tracks hourly workers says managers who are adding staff for the holidays will hire fewer workers, and the number of stores hiring no additional help is increasing.

In a survey commissioned by, managers responsible for hiring said they would be bringing on about 33 percent fewer seasonal workers and 20 percent fewer hourly workers for the holidays.

Of 1,006 managers who responded to the survey, 57 percent said they will hire no additional help, 8 percentage points higher than last season.

Butler, who worked in retail for 26 years, said a majority of employers started their seasonal hiring in September or October.

"There are some opportunities out there, but there certainly aren't going to be as many," he said. "What happens now with many students is that with their class schedules, they don't get out in time to be able to work at most stores in retail -- unless it is a place they have worked before."

Butler said that as a hiring manager, when he figured out his seasonal staffing plans, he would first think of who had been on staff and who he knew could come back for the holidays -- when many retailers do a huge percentage of their yearly business.

Managers like to bring back such "floaters," Butler said, because they already know the merchandise and don't require any training. It's important to identify during the summer those workers who can come back during November and December so it makes other elements of seasonal planning easier, he said.

Amy Newman, a classmate of Sciscione at Rutgers, is also looking for a job during the holidays. She said she may be able to get a job at a card store, where the owner said none of his summer help is coming back for the holidays. She also is considering working at a restaurant.

Newman said her search, while not intensive, has been a little tricky.

"I've found that a lot of people aren't looking for people who work on breaks only," she said.

Butler had advice for those who had yet to start their job search.

"You should still look. There are still jobs to be had out there," he said.

He pointed out that online retailers see a spike in business and hire a lot of workers for their call centers to handle orders. Delivery companies like UPS and FedEx also often increase staff in November and December.

He also said it's a good idea to apply at a store that's close to home, because most retailers will want their hourly seasonal workers to work late, meaning it's often midnight or 1 a.m. before everyone goes home for the night.

Many companies also take online applications, he said, so it's not necessary for college students to wait until they get home from a school break to apply for a job.

Some news reports have suggested that more people are applying for jobs. The number of people who have been collecting unemployment benefits topped 4 million for the week that ended November 8, the highest the figure had been since December 1982. So it seems like more people are looking for a bridge from one full-time job to another.

But Butler said it's important to remember that retailers and other employers are more concerned about the quality of the applicants, so even if the pool is larger, that doesn't necessarily make it more competitive.

The big question is: Will shoppers notice a difference when they hit the malls and discount stores on so-called Black Friday -- the day after Thanksgiving, when retailers traditionally "go into the black" -- and during the holidays? Or in the case of some stores, as early as Thanksgiving Day.

"You might experience a line here or there that might be a little long, but for the most part retailers are going to be very aggressive, trying to capture sales and trying to make it easy for people to get through their lines," Butler said. He advised shoppers to think about when and where they shop to avoid long waits.

Mall stores likely will find increased pressure to draw customers. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, told he thinks only 38 percent of Americans will shop at a mall during the holidays.

"But that doesn't mean they will buy something," he said.

Sciscione said he will return to the mall soon to check in with the managers at the clothing stores and turn in his applications. He knows he probably should also apply at a few other retailers.

"I don't want to put all my eggs in one basket," he said.

Still he's confident that despite the economic downturn, he'll be able to find something.

According to the survey, there's reason for him to have hope: 28 percent of hiring managers said they plan to bring on additional workers in December.

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