NORMAL — The help wanted signs for seasonal jobs are out, with some major retailers across the country reporting trouble finding enough workers to fill those holiday slots.
Many businesses in Central Illinois are finding the workers the need, but it's more of a challenge and employment agencies that help companies find employees say they are busier than normal.
“We don’t hire much seasonal help,” said Paul Sherman, owner/operator of Sherman’s, an appliance, electronics, furniture and mattress retailer at 300 Landmark Drive, Normal. “Our sales staff in Normal is steady year-round. We maintain enough staff and they take vacations during slow times so that we are ready to go when we are busy. Our type of business requires someone who has been there a long time who knows the products and can do the job.”
Economists say some retailers are having issues because of the low unemployment rate. In Illinois, the jobless rate in September was 3.8 percent, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Statistics. In McLean County, the rate was 3.5 percent, a drop of .1 percent from September 2017. The rate for Bloomington was 3.6 percent, unchanged from a year ago.
“We haven’t seen or heard from many in our area having that type of problem,” said Mike O’Grady, the interim CEO for the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council. “It’s not a complaint that we are hearing from retailers and we also know that this is an area with a lot of qualified workers and a strong labor force.”
Lee Best, owner of Express Employment Professionals, a staffing agency in Decatur, said if retail stores are having a “little trouble” finding quality help, then they are doing better than most.
“Most employers are really struggling to find workers,” he said. “With this economy, particularly in Decatur, we see that the labor market is extremely tight. As a result, we have seen some escalation in wages, particularly in the lower level wages, and within the staffing agency, recruiting has become much more difficult because the unemployment levels are very, very low.”
“Overall, for the economy, it’s a good thing,” he added. “When our clients call, they would like to have qualified candidates immediately, and so it may take a little longer, but it’s always good to have people working and spending money.”
The unemployment rate in Decatur was 4.7 percent in September, down .3 percent from a year ago.
Bloomington placement services said they also are noticing an uptick in activity.
“This has been a busy year for us,” said Marc Poirier, president and general manager of Abbey Placements in Bloomington. “We are putting a lot of extra effort into recruiting and it seems to be taking more effort than usual to find the people you want for the positions available. It’s good to be busy and basically, we saw it in the manufacturing areas first, as companies geared up for the holiday season.”
Ryan McCrady, president of the Economic Development Corporation of Decatur and Macon County, said he does get a sense that employers are having to work a little harder to find the help they need.
“With unemployment as low as it is, every employer is seeing a challenge, I would have to guess, although I don’t have any specific information from retailers,” he said. “Labor is a finite resource and there is only so much of it. I would expect that hiring for holiday work would be a little more challenging this year.”
Economists are predicting holiday sales will grow between 3 and 5.5 percent this year, and are projected to be around $720 billion.
When contacted by The Pantagraph, major retailers with stores in Bloomington-Normal and Decatur such as Target, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Kohl’s declined comment, referring inquiries to their company headquarters.
Across the country, the unemployment rate has fallen to a 17-year low of 4.1 percent, and many companies are reporting that employees are seeking more flexibility, training and pay, and that low-salaried, seasonal retail jobs are becoming less appealing.
“Businesses will have to offer improving benefits and pay,” said Sherman. “It’s a different world than it was even as short as 18 months ago. But I would rather have this situation, where it is harder to find people because of a strong economy driving sales, than have a situation where you can hire people on the cheap, but nobody wants to buy anything.”
Kohl’s, for instance, is offering seasonal hires a 15 percent employee store discount, and is more open to discussing the potential for full-time work. The company expects to hire 90,000 seasonal workers in its stores and for its e-commerce brand.
Dick’s Sporting Goods recently hosted a National Signing Day, and officials said the company planned on hiring 5,000 associates across the nation for the holiday season.
Locally, though, only a few people showed up for the event.
“In Bloomington, we are only hiring a handful of associates this holiday season,” said spokeswoman Ellie Stater, adding that local staff is thrilled with the labor force that can include students from Illinois State and Illinois Wesleyan universities and Heartland Community College.
Target, with a store in Normal, said it plans to hire 120,000 seasonal workers, a 20 percent increase from last year, and will be doubling the number of temporary positions dedicated to fulfilling online orders, to meet rising demand for its order pickup and drive-up services.