Carmela Williams, left, discusses billing for an order with the manager, Anna Espinoza (center), of the Sierra Nut House in the Villaggio Shopping Center as Kat Frederickson observes.
Written by Edward Smith
Across the nation and in the Central Valley, unemployment is at historic lows. The holiday season is a crucial time for retailers, which can sometimes pit stores against one another to get good employees.
September data from the California Employment Development Department has 428,600 people employed out of the 455,400 eligible workers reported in Fresno County. That leaves 5.9 percent unemployed, compared to 6.8 percent at the same time last year. In Tulare County, of 208,000 eligible workers, 191,500 have found employment for a jobless rate of 7.9 percent, compared 8.8 percent last year.
While employment numbers typically fall during the holiday season due to shrinking farm jobs, the number of retail jobs increase. In September 2017 in Fresno County, there were 38,400 retail jobs, and by December, that number was 40,500, dropping off to 39,000 by January.
In Tulare County, the 2017 holiday season started off with 15,900 retail jobs in September and 17,100 jobs by December, ending with 16,500 jobs in January.
These numbers can put pressure on hiring, driving retailers to offer perks beyond merely higher wages.
“Like most businesses, fourth quarter is the main source of revenue,” said Esteban Solis, general manager at Sierra Nut House in Fresno. “Being a mom-and-pop shop, it’s very important for us.”
Gift boxes are the biggest seller during the holidays for the almost 50-year-old purveyor of nuts, wines and candies. They can produce 50 at a time in their warehouse, where they’ve dedicated six people just to wrapping goods in cellophane. They get daily shipments of those boxes, and oftentimes they might only be on the shelf for an hour before being purchased. A company from Stanislaus County recently ordered 100 of them for their employees.
Operating hours are expanded for the two locations. For the Sierra and Chestnut avenues location, that means being open on weekends, too.
To fill their staffing needs, they are hoping to add between 20 and 30 people. Currently, they are about 40 percent toward that goal. Solis is optimistic they will fill that need.
One way to get good employees, Solis said, is by hiring his customers. This means hiring staff already familiar with their product.
“It comes down to product knowledge,” he said. “There are specifics in knowing the quality grades of fruits and nuts.”
For holiday gift givers, this could mean discounts for merchandise like they give at the Nut House. They also have perks like free coffee and a holiday bonus.
Kohl’s, the nationwide department store, is also providing expanded employee discounts this year in hopes of nabbing up labor to fill the 90,000 open positions, according to a press release from the company.
“Individuals look to Kohl’s for seasonal positions for any number of reasons, including looking to begin a career in retail, earn additional money for the holidays, or maximize savings with great discounts this holiday season,” said Ryan Festerling, executive vice president of human resources, in a press release. “Whatever the reason, Kohl’s is committed to offering our seasonal associates perks and incentives that make the experience of working at Kohl’s rewarding and exciting.”
Solis says that keeping their feet in the door with previous hires means staying competitive in filling staffing requirements. People are familiar with the business and know they can come back without having to start the process from the beginning. Of their nearly 23 hires this season, 15 of them are returns.
Getting those rehires can be key, according to Brenda Bodke, executive director of Fresno-based Sierra HR Partners.
Companies can expect to spend up to 50 percent of a full-time employee’s salary to fill the position, Bodke said, referencing data from the Society of Human Resource Management. Posting job openings, background checks and training all costs money, and for small businesses, hiring someone can be a major investment.
Solis said he spends almost half of his day finding people and doing interviews.
Having dedicated human resources staff, as major corporations do, can help companies navigate the numerous employment laws and alleviate some of that burden. But having a company that size can be a double-edged sword, Bodke said, considering the amount of people they need to hire.
“This year, we’ve committed to hiring 120,000 seasonal workers in our stores,” said Angie Thompson, a spokesperson for Target. The retailer is also hiring 7,500 people for distribution centers. That is a 20-percent increase year-over-year.
Company-wide, Target employs nearly 350,000 full-time and part-time positions and 120,000 workers will make up over a third of employment at the company.
Despite the labor crunch, Thompson said they are 40-percent ahead of where they were last year for distribution center hiring and “well-ahead” of where they were for in-store positions.
Thompson added that their unprecedented revenue growth in the second quarter indicated to them the need for more hires. A busy summer can mean an especially busy winter. Planning for the holidays starts well before the job fairs.
Months before hiring begins, they talk to existing employees concerning interest and availability during the holidays.
“It would seem to me it would be more difficult to hire seasonal workers,” Bodke said. “There are more employees in regular positions this year than there have been in the last five years.”