Originally created 11/08/97

Stores are having trouble finding holiday help



NEW YORK -- Brace yourself this Christmas for longer lines at the cash registers and fewer salespeople on the selling floor.

With the economy strong and unemployment low, stores around the country are having trouble finding holiday help.

"There just aren't a lot of people coming in for jobs," said Larry Friend, a Kmart store manager in Omaha, Neb. "We're not desperate yet, but the competition is fierce and we still need workers."

It's the second straight year that stores are hard-pressed to find people to do such things as stock shelves and greet customers.

The reason: Fewer Americans are looking to earn a little extra cash around the holidays.

The Labor Department reported Friday that the nation's unemployment rate sank to 4.7 percent in October, a 24-year low. Meanwhile, consumer confidence in the economy is at a 28-year high.

But in Augusta, where the unemployment rate was 6.6 percent in September, stores are having no problem finding holiday workers, managers said.

"We started Christmas hiring about the first week of October, and we've finished up," said Ed Asbridge, manager of the JC Penney store in Augusta Mall. "We've trained about half of them, and the other half will be trained in the next week. We've hired a little over 50 people, and our overall employment is up about 20 (people) over last year.

Mr. Asbridge has heard of stores in other areas having problems hiring, but said that's never been a problem in Augusta in the 10 years the store has been open. Other retailers said a steady supply of teachers, college students and even Savannah River Site workers wanting to earn extra money provided a good job pool for the area.

"We've got a good base," said Bill Shiver, manager of the Wal-Mart on Edgewood Drive.

His store has hired about 20 people for Christmas during the past two weeks, and he doesn't anticipate any problem finding more holiday help, he said. The newly opened Target store in Augusta also is hiring holiday help and hasn't had any difficulty finding people, personnel manager Latrise Kennedy said.

Over the last five years, retailers increased their holiday staffs 3.8 percent on average, according to the National Retail Federation.

Stores are doing more than just hanging "Help Wanted" signs in the window. Some are offering charities money to recommend workers; others ask their own employees to refer friends and family.

The Target discount store in Kansas City, Mo., has gone beyond the city limits to find employees. To help them get to work, it has hired private buses and asked the transit agency to alter city bus routes.

"We've had to make some very big strategy efforts to get workers," said Steve Kenady, regional personnel director at Target. "The competition for service workers is incredible. You can't just depend that they will want to come to your stores."

Lands' End, the mail-order clothing company, depends on its regular staff to find many of its 2,600 seasonal employees. This year, it gave away 34 Green Bay Packers tickets to employees who recommended friends and family.

The company also is busing in students from a University of Wisconsin campus 50 miles away from its Dodgeville, Wis., headquarters and hired workers from a cheese factory nearby that closes during the winter.

On a national level, Kmart advertises Christmas job openings on pamphlets stuffed into its credit card bills. It also posts job opportunities on its Internet home page.

Staff Writer Alisa DeMao contributed to this report.