July 2021 was a positive month for the U.S. for many reasons. Vaccines became accessible on-demand for almost everyone who needs them in our country. Restaurants and entertainment venues began increasing their capacities and opening their doors to more individuals. It also saw the largest uptick in job gains and unemployment rates since the pandemic started.
With 943,000 new jobs reported in July, there is hope that the hiring cycle will continue at a steady pace over the next few months. As fall approaches, so too does one of the largest seasonal hiring cycles. With the holiday season quickly cresting the horizon, many businesses will begin canvassing candidates and hiring for the multitude of temporary roles available. There is cautionary hope that this holiday season will see a return to the normal hiring cycle and a large increase in seasonal jobs for our economy.
However, with COVID not yet in the rearview, there are many factors for HR leaders to consider if this holiday hiring season is to be safe and successful.
The Current Hiring Climate
Brick & Mortar
The “future of work” is a topic that has seen wide coverage over the previous year, and it is one that is sure to see even more discussion in the months to come. Remote work trends aside, one industry preparing the most for this season is brick and mortar retailers. For retailers, the attitude to this year’s holiday hiring is very much one of “prepare for the worst, hope for the best.” Target is one example of a company shifting its job offerings in the hopes of attracting more candidates amidst the current hiring climate. The chain has begun offering $200 signing bonuses to new candidates, and like other retail giants like Walmart, is even offering to pay for employees’ college tuitions.
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Incentives like these have been largely spurred by the fact that hiring by retailers is currently down 70% compared to pre-pandemic levels. There is a large number of job vacancies in this space, and no clear signs of improvement. This is a staggering gap that needs to be filled, and there is not a lot of time to do it. The National Retail Federation, for example, is forecasting that retail sales will be up 10.5% to 13.5% to more than $4.44 trillion this year. Not only is there an expected high demand from consumers this holiday season, but there are likely not enough seasonal employees to go around to meet this demand.
Another important factor to consider is that enhanced COVID-19 related federal unemployment benefits ended in early September. According to the New York Times, it’s anticipated that the Labor Department will provide “$47 million in new grants meant to help displaced workers connect with jobs.” This initiative, coupled with a decline in federal unemployment benefits, could boost seasonal hiring numbers and incentivize unemployed Americans this holiday season.
How can holiday retail giants like Target and Walmart make up the deficit here? For these traditional retailers, it will mean reinventing the competitive hiring cycle this holiday season. This may mean continuing a trend we saw during the height of the pandemic: broader adoption of digital storefronts to reach customers. According to DigitalCommerce360, the 2020 holiday season saw a whopping 45% increase in online sales compared to prior years, and it would not be surprising to see similar online sales numbers in 2021. Companies like Walmart are already beginning to plan ahead. The retail giant recently announced plans to hire 20,000 new employees this season to support its supply chain and online sales. More large retailers are sure to follow suit.
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Not only are employees demanding a change to benefits and work experience, but consumers are changing their purchasing habits. Companies and HR leaders looking to take full advantage of seasonal hiring will need to strategically lean into the use of new digital storefronts, which will mean higher demand for candidates within the warehouse, logistics and delivery departments of these retailers. CNBC noted in 2020 that Target had “twice as many employees dedicated to same-day curbside and in-store pickup of online purchases compared with the first half of the year in 2020.” This change in strategy will likely continue into this year’s holiday hiring season.
It is truly a candidate’s market, and candidates are demanding higher and more transparent wages for these traditional retail and service positions. These greater hiring offers, combined with the adoption of new digital storefronts and strategies will make this holiday hiring season one to remember.
COVID’s Potential Impact Ahead
Unfortunately, COVID continues to rear its ugly head. As unemployment drops and hiring increases in pace, COVID-19 continues to adapt its viral makeup. Currently, the Delta variant continues to circulate widely across the U.S. With only 55% of the U.S. population fully vaccinated, COVID may just disrupt the seasonal hiring market as this pandemic bleeds into the fall and winter. With the likelihood of COVID sticking around this holiday season, businesses and HR leaders will need to remain on high alert and maintain an emphasis on employee health and safety.
Again, we are in a candidate’s market, and candidates are seeking positions where they are not only fairly compensated but where their health is included in the bottom line. Will mask mandates for employees and holiday shoppers be in effect come fall? Will proof of vaccination be required amongst seasonal hires? These are just a handful of the pressing questions the seasonal hiring cycle faces.
While the seasonal hiring outlook remains especially hazy, one thing remains clear: This holiday season will see one of the largest retail hiring pushes on record. Companies and HR leaders will be competing over an increasingly small pool of talent, and it would not be surprising to see a variety of forward-thinking hiring offerings and tactics employed to bring on talent.
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