Amazon seeking 50,000 holiday helpers

Increased seasonal hiring brings big gifts for job seekers, including the potential for continued full-time work after the holidays end.

By Jason Notte Oct 16, 2012 4:32PM

Image: Santa Claus (Tetra Images/Jupiterimages)Where untrained eyes might see warehouses full of boxes and belts loaded with outbound packages, Amazon (AMZN) sees its fulfillment centers as Santa's warehouse this time of year.

And it's looking for 50,000 more elves to help out this holiday season.

The company has unveiled a seasonal hiring plan that would more than double the 20,000 people at its 40 fulfillment centers across the country, where the seasonal employees will be placed. Those workers store incoming stock, pull online order items from warehouse shelves and pack boxes for shipment, and Amazon is hoping a few thousand of them will stick around as full-time workers after the holidays. 

While Amazon wasn't the first to announce its holiday hiring plans for this year, it's helping improve a holiday picture that's been sadder than a tableau from Joni Mitchell's "River" since the recent economic downturn. Appropriately named outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas was less than optimistic about the 2012 holiday season in September, when it forecast that holiday hiring would miss the average 722,000 workers hired from October through December from 2004 through 2007.

Challenger threw humbug at last year's total of 660,200 holiday workers, which was a scant 1.9% increase from the number hired during the holiday season a year before.

"There is still too much uncertainty to expect seasonal employment gains to reach the level we saw in 2006, when retailers added nearly 747,000 extra workers at the end of the year," chief executive John A. Challenger groused at the time. "We may never again reach the level of hiring achieved in 1999, at the height of the dot-com boom, when nearly 850,000 seasonal workers were added."

Who could blame him? The Conference Board's consumer confidence index had just dropped from 65.4 in July to 60.8 in August. Target (TGT) announced plans to hire 80,000 to 90,000 seasonal workers, down from 92,000 a year ago. It looked like a good year for the retail world's Grinches and Scrooges.

Then came October and a change to some far less dour colors. A jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reduced the unemployment rate from 8.1% to 7.8% and added 873,000 jobs in September. The University of Michigan/Thompson Reuters (TRI) consumer sentiment index for October rose to 83.1, its highest level since September 2007.

Wal-Mart (WMT) layaway sales rose $400 million in less than a month, forcing the company to order twice as many Apple (AAPL) iPads for the holiday as last year and revise its holiday predictions to include a 5% to 7% jump in sales. Overall retail sales in September rose 1.1% from August and 5.4% since last September to $412.9 billion, according to the Census Bureau.

The National Retail Federation, which is almost always perky around the holidays, predicted holiday sales would rise 4.1% from 2011 to $586.1 billion this year to exceed the last decade's average year-over-year increase. A survey by market research firm NPD Group found 77% of Americans plan to spend as much or more this holiday season than they did last year.

More importantly, Kohl's (KSS) announced that it would increase holiday hiring from 40,000 workers last year to 52,700 this year. Toys R Us says it will hire 45,000 workers this year, or 5,000 more than it did in 2011. Macy's (M) also debuted plans to hire 80,000 workers for the holiday. All of this led Challenger, Gray and Christmas to report that U.S. retailers, including restaurants, had already announced plans to hire 413,700. That puts seasonal hiring on pace to hit a level not seen in half a decade.

A whole lot of those jobs are sticking around, too, according to a survey of more than 1,000 hiring managers by hourly-job site Snagajob and research firm IPSOS Public Affairs. About 63% of those managers are hiring holiday help, up from 51% last year. Of those seasonal workers, about half (49%) will be hired full-time -- the highest percentage since 2007.

While the National Retail Federation initially expected holiday hires to fall somewhere between 585,000 and 625,000 seasonal workers -- comparable to the 607,500 seasonal employees the NRF says were hired last year – early tallies indicate that estimate may be a little low. Jobs have been high on holiday wish lists since the economic downturn. From the look of early holiday hiring, this may be the year that holiday wish comes true.

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