Wielding a hand-held scanner in the cramped stockroom of a John Lewis department store in East London, artist Neil Maclennan sorts through boxes and explains why he’d like to keep working with the company after his temporary holiday contract expires at the end of December.
“I can’t see art as my main source of income for a while,” said Maclennan, a goateed 32-year-old from London’s gritty Hackney neighborhood, who’s temping as he tries to get his fledgling art business off the ground. “I’d like to stay on, maybe in the head office.”
Maclennan is among the 100 seasonal workers -- closely held John Lewis Partnership Plc. calls them ‘partners’ -- in the company’s Stratford store, one of its 29 branches. Across Europe and the U.S., thousands of temps will stock shelves and man the cash registers this year. With youth unemployment in Europe above 20 percent and at 15.6 percent in the U.S., today’s temps aren’t just bored teenagers looking for extra cash or an employee discount. They’re now older, and more often angling for full-time work, like Maclennan.
That means retailers can get more qualified workers for less money, according to Craig Rowley, head of the global retail practice at workplace consultancy Hay Group. The trend also allows companies to audition employees before signing them to long-term contracts.
“Before the downturn, unemployment was 5 percent and companies couldn’t even fill permanent jobs, much less temp jobs,” Rowley said. “Now, companies can hire more than just stock keepers - they can hire people who like dealing with customers and who have some level of independence.”
These more seasoned workers are often not temping by choice. Over the past two years, the share of the British labor force that held temporary jobs because they could not find a permanent position has increased from 37.1 percent to 40.1 percent, according to the Office of National Statistics.
That number includes Beverly Hayes, a mother of two in Welwyn Garden City, England. She took a holiday position at Marks & Spencer Group Plc (MKS) this year while she sought permanent employment after losing the human-resources job she’d held for 13 years.
“I didn’t want to be sitting at home demoralized by my inability to find work,” she said. “I had never worked in retail before, so I thought it would be an interesting experience and perhaps fun.” She’s since found a full-time job.
It wasn’t always fun, and Hayes would often end the day exhausted. “It was very, very hard work.” she said. “I would come home and feel as though I had done a full workout in the gym. I enjoyed interacting with customers, but you have to do all this other stuff, like moving stock around.”
During periods of economic uncertainty, companies prefer the added flexibility associated with part-time staff. Over the past five years, the U.K. economy has added 724,000 part-time jobs while the number of people in full-time employment fell by 355,000, government data show.
As full-time jobs dwindle, more than one-third of U.S. retailers surveyed by Hay Group said they are hiring more seasonal workers this year, up from just 10 percent who said so last year. In the U.K., more than two-thirds of retailers will boost staffing for the holiday season, up from 54 percent last year, according to the British Retail Consortium.
John Lewis, which was founded in 1864 and now employs 28,000 people, will hire about 500 temps this year, unchanged from last year, and it gets as many as 30 applications for each spot, personnel director Laura Whyte says. Work starts in late October and the company, based in London, would not disclose its wages for temps. According to The Appointment Magazine, which tracks recruitment trends, such work in London typically pays about 10 pounds ($16) per hour.
All temps are partnered with a full-timer during their shifts, and some of those who excel during the holidays join the permanent ranks, becoming eligible for a slice of the company’s profits, which this year amounted to 14 percent of their salary.
Last year Jess Moon, 18, temped at a John Lewis outlet in Reading, England, while in school and now has a permanent job. The last few shopping days before Christmas can be “nerve- wracking,” she said. Her advice for this year’s temps: “Be confident, energetic, and enthusiastic, and you’ll do fine.”
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