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Hiring for the holiday shopping season in Delaware a mixed bag.

This week, the biggest shopping season of the year kicks off on Black Friday and companies around the state have been hiring employees to handle the crowds since October.

Job opportunities during the holiday shopping season can often be a harbinger of how the economy is going, and based on hiring patterns around the state and throughout the mid-Atlantic region the economic environment is a mixed bag.

“Delaware and the mid-Atlantic have been a bit slower to recover in terms of an uptick in temporary hiring,” said Todd Bevol, President and CEO of Integrity Staffing Solutions in Wilmington. But, he added, “We’re starting to see a shift. We’re getting calls from customers we haven’t heard from for some time saying they need seasonal workers and folks to fill in for vacations.”

Holiday hiring in Delaware for his business, he continued, is now up about 4 percent to 5 percent, but it’s lagging the rest of the country, which has seen a 10 percent rise overall.

Based on the website SimplyHired.com, job listings for in the mid-Atlantic are about even with last year, said Dion Lim, chief operating officer of the site. “The labor market overall is still challenging,” he noted, adding that there are about five people for everyone job in the region.

While the Delaware Department of Labor doesn’t track real time statistics on holiday hiring, the state’s November employment “tends to be 1 percent higher than the annual average, 1.1 percent higher in December, and 2.5 percent lower in January,” said George Sharpley, economist and chief of the Office of Occupational and Labor Market Information for the Delaware Department of Labor. “This includes more than just holiday effects; schools and construction are also seasonal, for example.”

Among jobs most tied to the holiday shopping season, including retail trade and administrative support, the uptick is bigger.

He said:

  • Retail tends to be 3.8 percent above its annual average in November (1,900 jobs), 5.4 percent higher in December (2,700 jobs), and 2 percent below average in January.
  • Administrative support tends to be 3.5 percent above its annual average in November (750 jobs), 7.3 percent above in December (1,550 jobs), and 5.5 percent below in January.

Nationally, hiring this holiday season is expected to be flat, and retail sales are projected to rise 2.8 percent to $465.6 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. And in Delaware, Ken Brennan, chairman of the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce Retail Council, said he expects retail sales to be 3 percent or higher this holiday season, but hiring for most retailers will remain flat.

“Retailers in Delaware are cautiously optimistic based on recent results in selling,” said Brennan, who is also store manager of the Boscov’s at the Christiana Towne Center.

Retailers tend to base holiday hiring on their sales expectations. Nationally and in Delaware, experts say while sales are expected to rise slightly, hiring remains flat.

A positive sign for the state’s jobs picture, Brennan continued, is this year they’re seeing fewer applicants who were displaced from corporate jobs who had flooded the applicant pool during the last two years. “We’d have to assume things are getting better,” he surmised.

How many temporary workers employers hire this time of year is all about how sales are doing, said Casey Chroust, Executive Vice President, Operations of the Retail Industry Leaders Association. “Inevitably, seasonal hiring mirrors expectation for traffic and sales,” he added.

Indeed, some retailers around the state are bullish on their sales expectations, and are adding more employees.

Take Target in Wilmington. Daniel Conroy, Target’s store manager, has been experiencing increasing sales and as a result expects he’ll end up hiring 10 percent more seasonal workers this holiday season, for a total of 125. The store, he added, will continue hiring right through this week.

“Locally, I think the economy is doing better,” he explained.

Target in Wilmington, and many of the Target stores throughout the country, will be opening at midnight Thanksgiving Day for the first time, and that decision has prompted some workers to protest the move. A petition to convince the company to rethink its plan has gotten thousands of signatures by Target employees.

But Target company officials are defending the plan. “We have heard from our guests that they want to shop at Target following their Thanksgiving celebrations rather than only having the option of getting up in the middle of the night,” said Molly Snyder, a spokeswoman for Target Corp. “By opening at midnight, we are making it easier than ever to deliver on our guests wants and needs.”

Target’s store manager in Wilmington, Conroy said reaction from his employees has been “positive overall” to the early opening.

The early openings are a sign of how competitive the holiday shopping season has become, say retailer industry observers, and more and more retailers are jumping on the don’t-wait-until-Black-Friday bandwagon.

Many of the stores at the Rehoboth Beach Tanger Outlets plan on opening by 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, said Jamie Lorah, manager of the Kitchen Collection store at the outlets. “We usually open at midnight but this year it will be open from 10 p.m. until 10 p.m. on Black Friday,” she said.

The decision to open up earlier, she noted, has partly do with making accommodations for shoppers who don’t like coming out on Black Friday because of all the hustle and bustle.

Lorah said she hired three more employees this year compared to last year for a total of 12 workers.

The number of applications she’s gotten has also risen and she believes that’s a function of tough economic times. Lorah hires many younger workers, between ages 18 and 24, and that’s the age group that’s seen some of the worst unemployment during this downturn, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Hiring for seasonal workers at the Boscov’s in the Dover Mall is about the same as last year, said assistant store manger Mike Tosto. “It’s basically business as usual,” he said.

The number of applications the store has gotten has also been steady in the past few years. “I think, in general, there are lots of people looking for work or looking for extra work to get back on their feet financially,” he said.

As far as sales, he’s hoping some of the store’s recent advertising will help increase business this holiday season and so far this year, “it hasn’t been that bad.” He declined to provide specifics on sales figures.

For Black Friday, Boscov’s will open at 4 a.m. and close at 10 p.m., and the retailer will be pushing lots of store busters to lure consumers.

Many of the retailer shops in the Christiana Mall are reporting hiring for the holiday season is up over last year, according to Greg Harris, a spokesman for the mall.

“Most of what we’re hearing from retailers is that the numbers are up, and there are still some stores looking for employees. There are still some jobs to be had,” he said. Job seekers, he added, can go to the individual store websites to apply for positions.