Businesses looking to hire temporary workers for the holiday season will face an uphill battle this year. With unemployment at a record-low 3.5 percent and large retailers like Target and Walmart raising their starting wages, it's harder for smaller employers to recruit talent. Meanwhile, the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China and rumblings about a possible recession have resulted in some dire forecasts for the retail industry

According to reports from Glassdoor and Indeed, however, job postings for seasonal positions are up compared with this time last year, indicating that many businesses remain confident about holiday sales. With the shopping season beginning earlier every year, more and more companies are looking to get a head start on hiring, says Craig Rowley, senior client partner for retail at management consulting firm Korn Ferry.

Here are some strategies to staff up as the busiest time of year approaches.

1. Reach out to current employees, customers, and fans of your brand.

One simple way to improve your staffing coverage during the holidays is to ask your employees if they're interested in working additional hours during that period, Rowley says. Next, look to your customer base, which also can be a robust source of talent. "If you get people who already know your product, already know your store, and love the brand, what a great way to bring a temporary employee in," he says.

Minneapolis-based Love Your Melon has seen this firsthand. The 40-employee company, which sells beanies and other winter wear, hires eight to 10 temporary workers each year to help with customer service from around October to March. It doesn't have trouble filling those roles, co-founder Zachary Quinn says, because of the reputation it has cultivated on college campuses. Love Your Melon relied on student volunteers to help fulfill its buy-one-give-one model, where the company delivered a hat to a child fighting cancer for each one it sold. After the company reached its goal of giving hats to all 45,000 children with cancer in the U.S., it changed the model but maintained a network of student brand ambassadors who deliver hats to new patients and participate in the company's charitable projects. Its work with students has created a reliable stream of applicants for paid holiday positions.

Some seasonal employees return to staff the company's pop-up events, and about a quarter have been hired for permanent positions, according to Quinn. "It tends to work really well, to get to know somebody first, and for them to get to know you," he says. He recommends posting job listings on bulletin boards at colleges, and adds that it's important to make sure temporary workers have a positive experience at your company: "Make it fun for them while they're here, because they're going to leave a lasting impression for other people in the future that want to come work for you."

2. Streamline the hiring process.

Staffing agencies can help you fill seasonal positions, and it'll help to look for one that caters to your particular industry, says Michael Steinitz, senior executive director at Accountemps, a division of staffing firm Robert Half. "Any sort of specialized recruiting firm--that's exactly what they do, and it saves you the time of having to go through all the various job boards," he says.

Some companies also use automated systems, so they can show shift schedules to applicants during the hiring process, and allow prospective hires to indicate what days or hours they can work, Rowley notes. In addition to helping you plan ahead, this can give your company an edge: "If I know that I can get the times I want to work, it makes me more likely to go to work for you," he says.

One such tool comes from Scottsdale, Arizona-based Paradox. The company's flagship product, Olivia, is an AI assistant that can screen candidates, answer their questions, and schedule interviews via text message. In April, Paradox released a slimmed-down version of Olivia for retail and restaurant businesses, designed to fill roles quickly at individual locations.

It's not just startups that are developing new tech for recruiting temporary staff. In October, Uber launched a hiring app, Uber Works, that connects businesses with people looking for work in fields like warehouse labor, event staffing, and restaurants. Businesses pay a fee for each shift that's filled through the app; the cost varies based on the type of work and how far in advance the opening is posted. Uber Works is currently operating only in Chicago, but plans to expand, according to its website.

In general, the tight labor market means employers should assume each promising candidate is considering other opportunities, Steinitz adds. So don't delay setting up interviews or making an offer, or you'll risk losing a qualified applicant: "You've got to move quickly."

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Love Your Melon relies on student volunteers to help fulfill its buy-one-give-one model, where it delivered a hat to a child fighting cancer for each one sold. Students still distribute hats to all new patients, but after the company reached its initial goal of giving a hat to every child with cancer in the U.S., it replaced the buy-one-give-one model with a 50 percent donation of net profits to nonprofit groups fighting pediatric cancer.

Published on: Nov 18, 2019