Karl Janred was relieved to participate in a training session for new holiday hires at JCPenney last week, touring the store to learn where to clock in and how to help customers find fluffy earmuffs.
On his quest for work, the 18-year-old Santa Rosa Junior College student had applied for about 20 jobs, hitting the typical holiday spots like Best Buy, and checking out Safeway and McDonald's.
"I wanted to work just about anywhere, honestly," Janred said. "I was looking for jobs, and everyone was turning me down. I think it's because of the economy."
Retailers around Sonoma County are beginning to hire and train staff to help handle the crush of holiday shoppers expected to descend on stores in just a few weeks. But the outlook is not exactly stellar in a region where the unemployment rate has hovered around 10 percent for months. Sonoma County's jobless rate fell to 9.4 percent last month.
Janred is one of about 100 temporary workers that JCPenney plans to hire for its Santa Rosa store. Like many other retailers, the company is bringing on about the same number of holiday employees as it did last year.
Holiday hiring is viewed by some economists as an indicator of just how loose shoppers will be with their purse strings over the next few months.
"If they're hiring more people, that means they think people will be doing more shopping," said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. "They're making a bet."
For most retailers, that means holding steady.
Nationwide, retailers are expected to hire the same or fewer holiday workers than they did last year, when they hired 627,600, according to the firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas Inc. Before the recession, holiday hiring generally stood at around 720,000 workers. But in 2008, the number of holiday workers added to the rolls fell by 50 percent.
Retail managers said the applicants this year range from teenagers, college students and retirees to long-term unemployed. Many of the jobs pay close to minimum wage, which is $8 per hour in California.
"It's kind of hard," said Mike Gobble, store manager for JCPenney. "We see people, and what they were making at their last job, and they're going to come here and work seasonally for us. And you definitely see the pay difference."
Holiday positions start at around $8 an hour, or higher if the applicant is more experienced, Gobble said. A lucky few are offered permanent positions in January. JCPenney tends to keep 10 to 20 percent of its holiday workforce.
"It's not a road to riches," Stone said. "But if you've been out for a while, it's good to get $10 or $12 an hour."
Hiring is in full swing at the Best Buy in Santa Rosa, which will add about 30 to its staff over the holidays, said Chas Stanley, store manager. The staffing level locally will be similar to last year, although nationwide, the chain is hiring only about half of the employees that it did last year.
"We've received quite a bit of applications," Stanley said.
Retailers in Coddingtown Mall are looking forward to an increase in foot traffic during the holidays, especially since many said the number of shoppers has decreased since construction began.