December Sees More Job Losses; Obama Highlights Energy Jobs

Seasonal employees can make lasting impressions but hiring below normal.

Jan. 8, 2010— -- The discouraging jobs report released by the U.S. Labor Department today is "a reminder that the road to recovery is never straight" but jobs created by the "clean energy" sector can help put Americans back to work, President Obama said in a speech at the White House this afternoon.

Obama unveiled a new, clean-energy initiative that he said would create 17,000 jobs through $2.3 billion in tax credits. The credits would go toward 180 projects in 40 states. Obama also spoke of $5 billion in private-sector, energy investments that could create tens of thousands of more jobs.

"Building a robust clean energy sector is how we will create the jobs of the future, jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced," the president said. Bolstering the country's clean energy technology, he added, will also reduce a dangerous dependence on foreign oil and fight the threat of climate change.

The Labor Department reported this morning that U.S. employers shed 85,000 jobs last month, leaving the unemployment rate steady at 10 percent. There was at least one bright spot: The government also revised its November jobs report, finding that the economy actually gained 4,000 jobs, the first monthly job gain since the recession began.

"The overall trend of job loss is still pointing in the right direction," Obama said, but added, "We have to continue to explore every avenue to accelerate the return to hiring."

Obama's assessment of the country's employment situation echoed that of Treasury Department chief economist Alan Krueger, who said earlier today that "recoveries do not move in straight lines and, instead, proceed in fits and starts."

"Today's employment report is a good illustration," he said.

"The bottom line from the payroll side in today's report," Krueger said, "is the trend towards smaller job losses is intact. But we have not yet moved to producing the sizable job gains that we need."

Looking for Relief Through Seasonal Employment

No one knows that better than Andy Harvey.

When he walked into a Fort Worth, Texas, department store in November seeking employment, he was hoping for something permanent.

Recently restructured into a retirement for which the 66-year-old former human resources executive was neither financially nor mentally prepared, he took what he could get; a part-time position in the ladies footwear department. The sales job was supposed to last only through the end of the holiday shopping season but Harvey parlayed the Christmas stint into a year-round fit.

"There happened to be an opening and, presumably, they liked me," Harvey said. "I always tell people never to overlook seasonal work. You never know, it can lead to something permanent."

Some who have found work in recent months were part of the annual spate of retailers' holiday hiring, often viewed as only a fleeting economic booster shot.

Howard Penney, a research analyst at New Haven, Conn.-based Research Edge, said that while all the data is not in yet, the retail holiday season was not expected to be exceptionally robust. Most holiday helpers won't get offered a longer-lasting opportunity.

"Retail hiring is not going to be particularly robust," Penney predicted. "Companies across the board are learning to do more with less."

But not all seasonal workers end up getting tossed out to the curb with the Christmas tree.

UPS, for example, hired around 50,000 extra seasonal employees in Novemver, of which about 25 percent will be transitioned into permanent positions, said Michael French, a spokesman for the Atlanta-based shipping giant.

"It's fast-paced, physically demanding work," French said. "So we look for people who excel in this type of environment, whether sorting packages or loading trucks. A positive attitude is among the most important qualities we'll look for."

At least two high-level UPS executives, Kurt Kuehn, CFO, and Christine Owens, senior vice president in charge of communications and brand management, started out at the company as seasonal employees.

Below Average Seasonal Hiring

But, of course, for every example of a holiday hire who made good there are many more who wind up back pounding the pavement by mid-January, crowding an already thin job market.

Holiday hiring in general, meanwhile, appears to be down relative to historical norms.

In the retail sector, where most seasonal hiring occurs, there were 375,000 seasonal workers added through the end of November, according to research done by workforce consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, citing non-seasonally adjusted Labor Department statistics.

In 2008, with the holidays coming right after some of the most severe economic shockwaves endured in the past century, the numbers for holiday helpers hit an all-time low, with a mere 384,300 seasonal hires, according to Challenger, Gray's research.

The 2008 figure was highly atypical, said John Challenger, the Chicago-based firm's CEO.

On average, for the period between 1999 and 2007, the retail sector added around 700,000 seasonal employees. Even in the holiday season afterr the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, there were 585,300 seasonal hires.

"In a difficult economy, seasonal hires in retail can be a barometer of where we're heading," Challenger said. "I'd say we're off the bottom."

One company that cut back on seasonal hiring is Target. Laura Opsahl, a spokeswoman for the Minneapolis-based retailer, did not have any specific data. But she said that while in years past the company brought on a fair amount of seasonal workers, Target this season did not add nearly as many. Instead, she said, existing Target employees were offered extra hours.

For 22-year-old Nakeha Taylor of Brooklyn, New York, landing a seasonal job at the Gateway Target store location near her section proved clutch.

Taylor had taken the semester off from college to help take care of her aging grandmother.

"I liked being here so I decided from the get-go to do everything I could to make sure I got to stay," Taylor said.

She was recently told that she was being hired full-time, confirmed human resources manager Sherley Lamarre. Of the roughly 100 seasonal workers the Brooklyn Target brought on, as many as one half will be hired permanently, Lamarre said.

Some seasonal jobs -- say, at a Christmas tree farm -- are fleeting, by their very nature, But seasonal workers can, in some cases, follow the change of the seasons.

"There's more part-time and non-permanent, full-time work in today's troubled economy," Challenger said. "Some of these jobs are seasonal, some cyclical, some due to random surges or needs of a particular company. So many workers patch together their working life, mixing self-employment with part-time seasonal work, maybe plowing snow in the winter or doing construction in the warmer months."

The Myth of the College Worker

Special projects or one-off gigs in fields such as technology, marketing or media, can often be auditions for full-time work, Challenger added.

The most recently available Bureau of Labor Statistics employment data showed, on a seasonally adjusted basis, there were, as of November, about 9.2 million U.S. workers who reported taking part-time work specifically for economic reasons, up from 7.3 million one year ago.

The presumed notion that most holiday helpers are college kids on break increasingly appears to be off the mark. Indeed, only around 13 percent of all retail workers are teenagers, according to the National Retail Federation. An increasing number of retail workers are folks not just looking for extra pocket money but, rather, skilled workers, grown adults, just trying to earn a living.

"I'll keep looking for something else," said Harvey, the Fort Worth department store worker. "But I'm glad to have an opportunity to stay onboard. Money is too tight for me to retire. And, apart from football, there's not much worth watching on television."

With reports from ABC News' Matthew Jaffe.