Holiday job seekers swamp stores

From department stores and convenience chains to call centers, managers who only a year ago had to scramble to fill holiday jobs are seeing a surge in the number of seasoned applicants — many of them laid off in other sectors and desperate for a way to pay the bills.

The flood of job-seekers comes even as the retail industry drastically cuts back on holiday hiring because of the drop-off in consumer spending.

"I thought it was going to be pretty easy, but I am not the only one looking for a job. There are thousands of us going for the same thing," said Kimberly Caparo of Chesterfield, Mich., who has applied for part-time jobs at Toys "R" Us Inc., Home Depot Inc. and Lowe's Cos. Inc. in recent weeks since she and her husband were laid off by American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc.

In Lexington, the economy is also causing more people to apply for jobs at ACS, which has 2,000 local employees and 4,000 in call centers and other operations around Kentucky, says spokesman Chris Gilligan. The company traditionally hires more people around the holidays because employers update benefits for the following year.

The additional applications, including many that originate on the Web site, allow the company to be more selective in its hiring.

"We have openings today all across Lexington and across Kentucky," Gilligan said. "We are constantly hiring, but we are looking to match the right people with the right client at the right time."

At UPS Inc., which is just starting to ramp up its holiday hiring, as much as 30 percent of the seasonal hires in the Northeast are coming from the ranks of the recently laid off, said spokeswoman Ronna Charles Branch.

In the past, she said, applicants for holiday jobs at the world's biggest shipping carrier were largely students.

Since the financial meltdown intensified in September, leading to extensive layoffs across several industries, a growing number of the unemployed have turned to lower-paying jobs in the retail sector, which they thought could help them get by until they found full-time work in their specialized fields or retrained in other areas.

"It would be money coming in, even if it's a little bit," said Caparo, 32, who's finishing up a college degree in business administration and does not plan to go back to the battered auto industry. "It's money that I don't have to take out."

But given the shakiness of the retailing industry amid a series of bankruptcies, store closings and liquidations, laid-off workers are even having a hard time finding any jobs.

John Challenger, chief executive of Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, noted that holiday hiring will fall significantly below last year's total, which was the lowest since 2003. And those with pink slips shouldn't count on new job opportunities even after the holidays, since even more retailers are expected to file for bankruptcy

The U.S. retail industry alone shed 38,100 jobs in October, bringing the total since January to 297,000, according to Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers. That accounts for 25 percent of the 1.2 million jobs lost in the U.S. so far this year.

Yet retail employment accounted for only about 11 percent of total payroll employment — meaning the retail industry is losing a higher proportion of its jobs.