Mall fair packs in unemployed shopping for jobs

Tiffany Johns from Target's human resources department talks to participants in the job fair in Wheaton.
Tiffany Johns from Target's human resources department talks to participants in the job fair in Wheaton. (Juana Arias For The Washington Post)
By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Hundreds of people thronged a job fair at the Westfield Wheaton shopping mall on Tuesday in hopes of finding employment before the holiday season -- and the accompanying bills -- set in.

Gustavo Saravia, 35, of Silver Spring, lost his job in sales and marketing about a year ago when his company downsized. He said he saw more qualified people come into the market as the recession deepened -- which meant more competition for the few open positions. On Tuesday, he met with Macy's and RadioShack seeking a full-time job.

"We're trying to get some money in our pockets," said Saravia, who is married and has three young children. "Holidays are coming by real quickly."

Fall is peak hiring time for retailers seeking seasonal employees to handle the surge of Christmas shoppers. But with the retail industry anticipating sales to be roughly flat compared with last year, many chains are playing it safe. At the job fair organized by the nonprofit Montgomery Works, retailers made up just a few of the roughly 50 participating companies.

"They'll watch [sales] numbers as they come in and adjust plans upwards or downwards," said Casey Chroust, executive vice president of retail operations for the Retail Industry Leaders Association, an industry trade group.

According to a survey last month by human resources firm Aon Consulting, 44 percent of stores plan to hire fewer holiday workers this year compared with last year. Only 19 percent reported that they would bring on more people. In addition, 42 percent of retailers said they intend to hold on to fewer seasonal workers after the holidays are over.

"There are a number of qualified candidates who will not find a retail job during this holiday season," said Bob Lopes, Aon executive vice president.

The industry has shed roughly 600,000 jobs over the past year as retailers grapple with the steep drop-off in consumer spending, which has helped drive unemployment to the highest rate in more than two decades.

In the Washington region, the unemployment rate was 6.2 percent in September, up from 6.0 percent the previous month, and the area continues to lose retail jobs. But the region is also buoyed by the federal government and strong contracting industries that have kept the jobless rate well below the national level of 9.8 percent.

At the Wheaton job fair, the Internal Revenue Service, Transportation Security Administration and Food and Drug Administration recruited workers alongside private companies such as banks and hotels.

Linda Calhoun, 46, of Temple Hills, stood in a line several people deep for a chance to chat with representatives from Hyatt. She said she was laid off from her administrative job this summer after 13 years with a defense company. Now she works two days a week at a property management firm, but she is barely making ends meet. She said she has drained her retirement savings and leans on family and friends.

"I just try to keep a roof over my head, the lights on," Calhoun said.

She went to five job fairs last week looking for another administrative position without any luck, and seemed to be striking out in Wheaton as well. Her meeting with the Hyatt representative lasted about a minute. Though Calhoun said she has plenty of experience, she doesn't have a college degree, a common requirement for even lower-level jobs. Calhoun said she tries not to get discouraged.

"I cried. I get mad," she said about losing her job. "Then I get up and start doing something again."

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