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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.

The Old Navy store in Coddingtown Mall will add only 10 new employees, compared with the 18 it hired last year, because the store's retail space decreased as a result of mall renovations, according to a store employee.

Mara Shepard, owner of Mara Shepard Designer Jewelry, said that instead of hiring holiday helpers, she will give her existing employees more hours during the holidays.

"If we see that we're going to be very busy, we have on-call people to bring in, but we don't know," Shepard said. "I anticipate it will be a very good holiday."

Shoe store Sole Desire in Coddingtown will hire about a half dozen holiday employees, the same as last year, said manager Khris Pandit.

"It's actually been a broader spectrum of people applying than in previous years," Pandit said. "Previously, I was interviewing more young people, and now the median age has gone up."

Others at the JCPenney training were hoping their new role would last longer than the holidays, like Mary Devee, 64 of Santa Rosa. Devee worked at an electronics firm for 30 years before being laid off seven years ago. Since then, she's been enjoying time off raising show dogs, but decided for economic reasons to go back to work. "There always comes a time," Devee said.

While JCPenney has been acting quickly to make hires, managers also are scouting for talent at places like Halloween City, the store temporarily housed in the former Gottschalks space.

"I'm hoping to go and grab some of those employees when Halloween is over," Gobble said.

In addition to retail, holiday jobs can be found in the wine industry, said Nicole Smartt, vice president and owner of Star Staffing in Healdsburg. Her company helps applicants find harvest work, and when that winds down, wine companies hire for temporary jobs in warehouse stocking, bottling and clerical work.

"There are wine-shipping companies that are really big, so they're getting the wine out for the holidays," Smartt said. "We are extremely busy, and are much busier than last year."

You can reach Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz at 521-5276 or cathy.bussewitz@pressdemocrat.com.