''Tis the Season

Copyright 2003, Traffic World, Inc.

Some of us are born procrastinators. Too late is not a phrase in our vocabulary. For us, holiday shopping sometimes occurs after Christmas. Others plan ahead, make lists and check them twice.

But there is a third group that has timeliness thrust upon it. In this group are employers that need to hire seasonal workers.

Retailers and those that work with retailers know that Christmas is the season of fellowship, family and, well, profits. It''s the biggest shopping season of the year and not to have items in stock is a Scrooge-ish nightmare. But an item needs to be made, stocked and shipped before it first lands on the shelves.

UPS, the world''s largest package delivery company, certainly takes no chances. It starts its holiday forecasting for the next year before Thanksgiving turkey leftovers get cold, said Christine McManus, spokesperson.

UPS finishes its forecasting needs at the start of the fourth quarter. "We can even get it down to how much extra volume per facility. That allows them to staff accordingly," said McManus.

The company hires more than 50,000 temporary workers annually for the holiday season. Some seasonal employees return year after year while others use the employment as a springboard to fulltime work, she said. These hires will move approximately 20 million packages on Dec. 18, the company''s peak day this year, compared with 13.3 million packages on an average day.

UPS moves 300 million packages between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Most of the positions are entry level, including helpers who ride along with drivers to expedite package delivery, package sorters and package loaders, said McManus. Full-time UPS managers become responsible for managing these additional hires during the holidays.

For UPS, the seasonal hiring is itself a big business. Others should be warned: don''t try this on your own. Even the smallest company - those that need to hire 10 or 12 seasonal workers - can find staffing companies to help, said Jerry Wimer, senior director of operations for Staff Management, a high-volume staffing firm.

He says that companies should plan for training and managing seasonal employees in addition to accurately forecasting how much help they will need. The single biggest mistake an employer can make is to hire seasonal workers on the fly. "When you are in peak seasonal time, that is not the right time," said Wimer.

By planning ahead like UPS, employers can get "a breakdown of what the recruiting market bears. It allows them to do labor forecasting," he said. For example, one employer that uses Staff Management needs to staff a remote location in Kentucky where 45 percent of the population does not have a high school diploma or GED. That needs to be taken into account in training these workers, another important issue for seasonal hires.

This same Internet-based retailer also moves from about 40 employees in the middle of August to 2,000 by the end of December, said Wimer. Three hundred of those workers are highly skilled, including forklift operators, pickers and walkers operating handheld computers. These workers need to be paid for their skills. "I think it''s important to use the same philosophy as with the full-time work force. You get what you pay for. It goes the same for a seasonal worker. You can''t pay everyone the same flat rate," said Wimer.

To reduce the number of highly skilled temporary workers needed, Wimer recommends moving full- time employees to key positions during seasonal peaks. Although many employers, including UPS, are reluctant to do so, it''s a good move because companies have the ability to train those workers in the off-season, he said.

It also alleviates the problem some companies have of not having enough management structure to handle a seasonal work force.

Other ways to reduce cost include lowering overtime, he said. Many companies underestimate the capabilities of their seasonal workers and instead have fewer employees with lots of overtime. A better model is to hire more seasonal staff and reduce overtime hours, said Wimer.

Particularly today, companies have a wide range of highly qualified temporary workers available to hire, he said.

Dave Coons, vice president of sales for PeopleScout, a recruitment firm that is a sister company to Staff Management, recommends that employers start preparing for seasonal staffing no later than the beginning of the fourth quarter of each year.

Employers also need to make sure they got what they paid for from a staffing firm. Wimer recommends companies get promises from these firms in the contract, which many companies are already doing. "Over the last 24 months these outsourced contracts have a lot more teeth to them," he said.

With that done, companies can sit back and hope "It''s a Wonderful Life." "With the proper planning in place just about any job can be done with a seasonal worker," said Wimer.

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