Money Coach: How To Get Hired For Holiday Jobs

More than 500,000 people are expected to get hired this holiday season. Host Michel Martin speaks with financial expert Alvin Hall and Washington Post retail reporter Ylan Mui for some advice on the best way to land a seasonal job.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a few minutes, Laurie David, the activist and now author of a book aimed at helping you connect or reconnect with your kids at dinnertime. That's our regular moms conversation. And it's in just a few minutes.

But first, reconnecting with a job. New retail sales numbers are just out yesterday, and they were stronger than expected. October numbers show a 1.2 percent rise in sales compared to September. That's the biggest gain in seven months, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. Now, that means that businesses might be in the mood to hire additional workers to help with things like stocking shelves and driving delivery trucks.

To talk about how you might land a job this holiday season - and maybe hold onto it next year - we're joined by Washington Post business reporter Ylan Mui, and our regular contributor on matters of personal finance and the economy, Alvin Hall. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Ms. YLAN MUI (Business Reporter, The Washington Post): Thank you for having me.

ALVIN HALL: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Ylan, first, can you just give us a ballpark number of how many seasonal workers businesses normally hire, or have hired in the past at this time of year?

Ms. MUI: Sure. During a bustling holiday season, stores will typically hire as much as 700,000 additional workers. Now, in the past few years during the recession, we saw that number decline dramatically - to about 500,000. This year, we're expecting that number to increase a little bit, maybe around 600,000 level or so. That's a good thing for those looking for jobs.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask, how would you know that they're talking about upping their hiring? Do you know this from looking at the ads that they've put out or -how do we know?

Ms. MUI: Well, the stores have actually said: We plan to hire more people this holiday season. And they're basing that on what they think they will do in terms of sales over the next two months. They typically start this process, actually, pretty early in the season. So even starting in September and early October, they're already looking at folks, already doing interviews, and already figuring out how many people are we going to put into our stores.

MARTIN: Well, that was going to be my next question. Alvin, is it too late to get seasonal work?

HALL: No, it's not too late at all because what has happened, a lot of the companies announced they were going to hire, but then they waited to see how the sales and how their returns will be before they ever start to hire. So they actually delayed a bit. So there's still an opportunity if people really want to get work. The big thing you have to do is connect into that company. Find out what jobs are available, and which ones you can apply for.

MARTIN: I was going to say, Alvin, you've talked to us recently about so-called bridge employment, the kinds of jobs that people get to tie them over when perhaps they're not working in their field - or perhaps even, sometimes, they might want to try something new or make a career change, and this is a way of kind of dipping your toe into the water. What is the best way to think about seasonal employment? What would you be looking for?

HALL: Yes. People should look at the job as an opportunity maybe to open themselves up to a new career path, or way to continue to generate money while they're away from their primary career. People need to look at these jobs also as a way of just building your own self-worth.

If you've been out of work a very long period of time, eventually you just sort of lose that fire. This can help you reconnect to people. When you're in this job, don't be afraid to talk to people about your dreams, your aspirations, and about whether there will be a permanent job available after the holiday season. So this is a way to motivate you.

MARTIN: Ylan, what are you hearing from businesses over the time that you've been covering this field? You cover consumer and retail. Do businesses who hire seasonal workers have particular things that they're looking for? I know that there's a whole range of jobs that people can apply for.

I'll just tell you a personal story, I have very vivid memories of my father, who was a firefighter, taking seasonal employment at a department store in New York. And he would stock the shelves because - and a lot of firefighters did because guess what? They're strong. And I have really fond memories of going -and my mother, of course, told me that he was going off to help Santa.

So do business have particular skills that they're looking for? Are there a broad range of skills? And how can you impress a potential employer?

Ms. MUI: Sure. I would say every business is a little bit different. But typically, what they look for is for employees who will do something a little bit extra - that you're not just folding the clothes. You're not just straightening the stacks. You're not just saying hi to your customers, that you're maybe asking a few more questions, that you showed an interest in the company, and that you are voicing that desire to work in the company maybe past the holiday season. They want people who want to be there.

So I think that one of the main things that you can do is just show interest, and show engagement in the job and in the employer. One thing that actually also surprised me is that I was talking to UPS the other day and they said, you know, sometimes there's just not a position available after the big surge - to the holiday season. But we remember people who were good. We might bring them back next holiday season. Or maybe sometime later in the year, a slot will come open, and we'll go back to those holiday hires who really stood out. There could still be opportunity down the line.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about holiday jobs with our money coach Alvin Hall, and Washington Post business reporter Ylan Mui. She's been writing about this.

And also, how do people apply for these jobs? I mean, we often - Alvin has often given us the advice that networking is very important, that personal contacts are very important. But let's say maybe you're a student who's still at school and looking to work over the holiday season at home. Do these companies typically hire from online applications? Do those really work?

Ms. MUI: Yes. That's exactly what they're doing now. The entire process for many retailers is online. So you go on the Internet to find the application, to find what positions are open. I also find that many retailers are now advertising their jobs through social media. So there's really different avenues that they're using to reach potential candidates for jobs these days. So I would encourage anyone who's seeking a job to look in many places.

MARTIN: But if you have to make your application online, how do you stand out?

Ms. MUI: Well, there's a couple of things. One is that one retailer that I talked to said that the application actually also includes a personality test so that automatically, they're able to tell, are you going to be the type of person who is going to fit within our company? So, that's one way that they use to screen clients.

The other thing is that I did talk to somebody who applied for and landed a holiday job. And what he did was, he applied for the job online, but then he actually drove to the store, shook the hand of the store manager and said, I just wanted to give you a heads up, I applied for a job at your store, and I would love to work for you. And he ended up getting the job and is now selling home-theater appliances at HHGregg.

MARTIN: Now Alvin, I'm guessing that if you're going to hire somebody for a seasonal position, you would want that person to be as flexible as possible, as open as possible, work as many hours as possible. But that just simply is not possible for some people. For example, if you're caring for a senior or caring for children, if you're still in school, for example. How do you think you could communicate that you may have some boundaries, in a constructive way?

HALL: Talk about your goals in this job, why you want the employment, and then talk honestly about the limitations. I think, often, if people know the limitations or your boundaries up front, they'll give you the flexibility to be able to both do the job and honor your other obligations. So I think if you're honest, you'll be able to both get a job, and have the flexibility that you want.

MARTIN: Ylan, do you agree with that?

Ms. MUI: I was recently sitting in on the interview process at the Container Store and they said, you know, if you can only work weekends, that's fantastic because that's our busiest time, you know. So that - they are willing to work with the flexibility. That said, if you're looking to work during the holiday season, you got to be prepared to work on Black Friday. You got to be prepared to probably work on New Year's Eve - that there are going to be certain key days when they're very busy, that they expect you to be in the store.

MARTIN: So, do not get your feelings hurt if somebody expects you to get up after Turkey Day.

HALL: Exactly.

MARTIN: Okay.

HALL: But I also think that people need to work their personal connections because almost everybody I know who's gotten a job during this holiday season so far, it's been somebody who worked in that store or who knew they were looking for a job. They applied online, but many of them got their jobs through that personal connection that they established with someone who already was in that business. So, use that to help you, to give you that leg up over everyone else who's just sending an application in over the Internet or through one of the social networking sites.

MARTIN: And what about working at a place you just happen to like to shop?

Ms. MUI: Well, the stores that I have talked to so far this season all say that some of the best employees were originally customers. So if you are at a store that you like to shop, most likely you know the product, you understand the company, you understand their philosophy. So frequently, stores will mine their customer base for holiday hires.

MARTIN: All right. All good advice. Well, Happy Thanksgiving to everybody, and happy shopping for the holiday season.

HALL: I'm thinking about getting a job in Bergdorfs, myself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay.

HALL: My favorite store.

Ms. MUI: I bet the discounts would be great.

HALL: I bet they would be.

MARTIN: Or not. I'm going to say, Alvin, you've got take the advice that you're always giving us, don't spend up all your paycheck in your...

HALL: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Alvin Hall is TELL ME MORE's regular contributor on matters of personal finance and the economy. He was with us from our bureau in New York. With us in Washington, D.C., Washington Post business reporter Ylan Mui. Thank you both so much.

Ms. MUI: Thank you.

HALL: You're welcome.

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