Holiday Hiring: Local employers come up with ways to fill seasonal positions despite fewer unemployed

[Originally posted in KenoshaNews.com]

Tis the season … to hire seasonal workers.

As many companies, especially retailers, prepare for the upcoming holiday crush, they may find the pool of workers smaller this year. And it may take companies longer to find the right person for the wage they want to pay.

While the Kenosha County and the southeastern Wisconsin labor markets have been described as robust, increased competition from some of the larger, more well-known companies, such as Amazon, may make it tougher for smaller companies, according to experts at local staffing firms.

Carving a niche
Companies like Mars Cheese Castle, 2800 120th Ave., located across the road from mega-employer Amazon, attract and retain seasonal help with bonuses, flexible work schedules and the employer/employee individual interaction that larger companies may not be able to provide.

For some job seekers, the work environment is a greater benefit than a few extra dollars in the paycheck.
“It’s difficult for a small company like ours to compete against a large corporation,” explained Michael Ventura, a co-general manager with Mars. “We sell products that make people happy. It’s so great to be working in a business that makes people happy.”

To gear up for the summer, its busiest season, Mars begins hiring seasonal workers in March. Last year, the Christmas holiday season was better than previous seasons. It already has a pool of employees ready to cover the holiday period.

Work conditions can be attractive. Mars has had one seasonal worker who has been with the company 15 years.
“She just knows when we might need someone and she comes in to help out,” Ventura said. An employee who left earlier this year to work for Amazon, returned two months later, “because he liked working here better.”

Staffing experts also attribute the recent hiring binge as having an effect on the seasonal labor pool. They said some people who might have been available for seasonal work, have taken full time positions with some of the newer employers in the region.

Search is on
The Seattle-based Amazon — with a distribution center in Kenosha — has recently launched a massive search for seasonal workers in preparation for the holiday season. Last year when it opened its sortation center, it hired 500 part-time seasonal workers, some of whom have become full-time associates at the adjacent fulfillment center. The e-retailer opened its fulfillment center in June staffing it with 1,000.

Now with 2,000 full-time employees, Amazon will host an official open house Wednesday. Though it has bulked up its staff, it still is seeking part-time, seasonal associates to assist with the upcoming holiday crush. It has even enlisted the services of staffing agencies to help in their search. Amazon is offering $11.50 an hour.

Seasonal hiring nationally is expected to be somewhat flat partly because retailers hired 449,500 people from March through August — up from 437,000 during the same period a year ago, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement research firm. A canvass of retailers revealed they expect to add roughly 755,000 seasonal hires to their payrolls in the final three months of the year.

Challenger, Gray & Christmas CEO John Challenger said in a statement, “In addition to steady hiring leading up to the holiday season, changes in the way consumers shop are making it possible for stores to meet increased holiday demand with fewer extra workers. When retailers do add holiday workers, fewer of those jobs are in traditional spots, such as sales clerk or cashier.”

High demand locally
Locally, employers still have a need. Some are finding it harder to fill open positions as quickly as in the past. Staffing agency officials say seasonal wages range from $8.50 to $20 an hour.

Gordmans, a discount department store located in the Southport Plaza shopping center, began hiring seasonal associates in August. Typically hiring 75 for the holiday season, plans call for the same number this year. So far, it has only filled 45 positions. “It’s been a struggle. We’ll be hiring up until Dec. 31,” explained assistant store manager Renee Novy.

Shopko, a department store at 5300 52nd. St., began hiring part-time, seasonal employees in early September. “We typically hire between 25 to 30 teammates,” said Michelle Hanson, a company spokeswoman.

Shopko has declined to discuss wage structure. But seasonal teammates, Hanson said, may be retained depending upon the hiring opportunities beyond the holiday season. Headquartered in suburban Green Bay, Shopko operates 75 stores in Wisconsin. It has stores in both Kenosha and Racine.

What best describes the Kenosha area seasonal jobs market? “You can say there are less people and more people needing people,” explained Amy Prellberg, a vice president with Quantum Personnel, 5017 Green Bay Road. “It’s not been like this in a long time.”

Six Flags focused on schedule, higher pay in filling its seasonal positions. As the region’s largest seasonal worker employer with 4,000 hires, Six Flags Great America has developed a strategy and raised wages to attract the people it needs to operate the amusement park.

Last fall when Amazon opened its Kenosha sortation center, offering to pay part-time seasonal employees $11.50 an hour, some employers in the region wondered how that would affect their ability to find the people they needed for their seasonal openings.

Though Six Flags’ season starts during Memorial Day weekend and ends Labor Day, it began hiring in March. Recruiters went to high schools and colleges, attended job fairs and used social media to find its people.

Six Flags officials had already planned an across-the-board wage increase, including raising the entry-level wage from $8.25 to $9 an hour.

Increased pay and a bundle of special benefits, including complimentary tickets, helped the entertainment company attract the people it needed to perform clerical, operational maintenance, landscaping and customer service duties. “It was an investment we thought was important to make,” said company spokeswoman Katy Enrique.

Nevertheless, it did experience a drop in the number of experienced job seekers who applied this year.

While the park saw the usual mix of retirees, teachers and others who liked a flexible schedule, wanted a second job or simply wanted to work in a fun place, a number of this year’s hires had never had a job, Enrique said. “If a person wants to work weekends, second or third shift, they can do that here. We can accommodate their needs,” she said. “This is a very unique place to work. A lot of people like it.” Pairing seasonal employees, employers.

Flexible Workforce Coalition
The coalition — originally known as the Wisconsin Seasonal Workforce Coalition — was developed by David Karst and works as a clearinghouse to help seasonal job seekers find positions and to help companies find the people they need.

Most importantly, it was developed to help seasonal workers — some of whom didn’t have much work experience — transition from one seasonal job to the next throughout the year without a gap in employment. “I wanted to make sure they were able to continue to develop their skills. These were good people who wanted a place to call home,” Karst said.

From 2008 through 2012, Karst estimated he placed 8,500 job seekers and helped several companies, including BuySeasons, UPS, Marcus Hotels & Resorts, Quad Graphics, Klement’s Sausage, Time Warner Cable, and Home Instead Senior Care. The service is free for employers and job seekers.

ZippyApp
Kamyar Faron knew how difficult it was for small businesses to find seasonal employees. As a staffing industry veteran, he knew they often would have to search longer with fewer resources than larger companies. “Some people don’t know how to promote their job opening properly. Some don’t have the financial resources,” Faron said. “Some small businesses cannot afford to take out ads on Monster.com.”

Faron has developed ZippyApp, a software system designed to help employers in the hospitality, food service and entertainment industries recruit the people they need for peak periods in their business operation cycles.

Employers can list their job descriptions, and job seekers can access the software to find jobs in their area.

Despite the name, ZippyApp is not a mobile device package. It is a system that prospective employers can load onto their computers. For more information, go to www.zippyapp.com.

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