ST. LOUIS -- Software manager Tim Bunce's extensive resume would not ordinarily grace the desk of a retailer looking for part-time help. But on the jobs front, this holiday period is anything but typical.
Twice laid off this year in the software industry, Bunce -- a married father of three who used to make $120,000 as a senior product manager -- was offered seasonal work paying $15 an hour, including commissions, at a computer store in North Carolina.
The job didn't work out because the 35-year-old requested a week to adjust his family schedule to the job's evening shifts. "They wanted to get someone in there quicker," Bunce said with a shrug.
Still, in the past people like him generally didn't apply at all.
Amid layoffs brought on the national economic slump, many retailers this season say they are blessed with the richest applicant pool in years as skilled, experienced white-collar workers consider limited seasonal work, and sometimes fiercely vie for it.
In addition, nearly 1 million unemployed workers nationwide will start losing jobless benefits three days after Christmas because Congress failed to grant an extension.
All that means that retailers are in the driver's seat.
"Mercifully for the first time in many years, it's true -- the pool of seasonal talent is larger," said Richard Outcalt, a partner at Outcalt & Johnson: Retail Strategists LLC, a Seattle-based consulting firm. "But the really good news is, it's a much better pool.
"They're more seasoned, more dedicated, more scared, more anxious to do a good job rather than the blase, couldn't-care-less, just-give-me-the-paycheck-I'm-going-home attitude of part-time seasonal employees in the retail scene that have been all too prevalent."
Just two years ago, the tight labor market led many stores to offer signing bonuses and premium wages to lure employees for the critical November and December period.
Now, retailers can afford to be picky about their holiday hires.
"This is definitely an employer's market," said John Challenger, chief executive of Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.
Sears, Roebuck and Co. expects to bolster staffing by 20 percent to 25 percent, as in years past, said spokeswoman Jan Drummond. Typically, she said, Sears brings in 40,000 to 45,000 seasonal workers.
"Some years are tougher to recruit, but this has been one of the easiest," she said.
"You can find some very good people in these times," said Wal-Mart Stores spokesman Tom Williams.
Up only slightly
But at the same time, many retailers are facing lackluster sales and many expect hirings of seasonal workers to be up only slightly this year, if not flat.
From 1998 to 2000, retailers added an average of 739,000 workers in November and December, according to the National Retail Federation trade group.
Last year, retailers added just 466,000 workers after the terrorist attacks lowered their holiday sales expectations, and this year the federation expects hiring to be up slightly to as many as 500,000.
According to a survey released this month by Challenger's firm, 63 percent of state retail associations polled said holiday hiring by their members likely would be down from years past, in some cases by as much as 25 percent.
Complicating matters for retailers is the uncertainty over how they'll fare this holiday season -- and how many extra workers, if any, they'll need. The six fewer shopping days this season don't help.
Some retailers deferred holiday hiring until they can see how early sales shake out, but this year's deep labor pool gives them flexibility to fill last-minute staffing needs, observers say.
"This year, we're not seeing as much frenzy about Christmas hiring," said Bob Kenzer, chief executive of Kenzer Corp., a New York-based recruiting firm. Retailers "are not anticipating the most robust Christmas. Surely, they aren't looking at a numbers breaker."
Workers aren't finding all retailers that cautious.
Connie Hurd, in her eighth year of seasonal employment in the St. Louis area, landed temporary work this season at Famous-Barr, and within two weeks she accepted a permanent job at the store near her home in O'Fallon, Ill.
"I was really most delighted," said Hurd, 53, embracing the work as a way to pick up extra Christmas cash and help finance a daughter's college education. "This is going to come in handy."
On the Net
National Retail Federation: www.nrf.com