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November 4, 2016 10:40 AM, EDT

As Unemployment Drops, Transportation Companies Struggle for Seasonal Workers

John Taggart/Bloomberg News

Andrew Sevier had a job. It just wasn't what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

Sevier, 28, was working in a warehouse in 2013 when he decided to pursue a career at UPS Inc.

"We would have UPS pickup guys coming in, and they talked me into it," he said. "After a while, I finally gave in and decided to go ahead and do it."

Sevier got a commercial driver license and waited for his chance. It came last November — during holiday hiring season — when he landed a temporary job with UPS. Although he didn't become a permanent employee right away, he returned to the Atlanta-based package distribution company this year and hopes to stay long term.

Companies such as UPS are hiring thousands of seasonal workers in central Indiana during the coming weeks. Sevier's move, while somewhat risky without a guarantee of permanent work, demonstrates how people can take advantage of the narrow holiday hiring window to upgrade their careers or end long employment droughts.

As Indiana's unemployment rate has sunk to 4.5%, companies are offering incentives and wages well above minimum wage to compete for a shrinking pool of candidates. In addition to UPS, national players such as Amazon.com Inc. and FedEx Corp. also are looking for large numbers of Indianapolis workers. Those companies say many of the so-called seasonal jobs will become permanent for candidates who perform well.

UPS ranks No. 1 and FedEx No. 2 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest U.S. and Canadian for-hire carriers.

"I think post-Great Recession, there's still a significant chunk of the labor force trying to find their footing again, either still facing unemployment or when they finally got employed again, it wasn't a very good fit for them compared to what they used to do," said Douglas Noonan, an economist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. "This is a chance to help workers find a better match with employers. Whether these are permanent [jobs] or not is a risk they are taking, but at least you can help bide the time over the next couple of months."

Across the United States, the share of seasonal job postings among all openings was up 50% over a year ago and 125% over October 2013, according to the job-search website Indeed. Retailers and distribution companies began posting seasonal openings and holding job fairs as early as August, sooner than usual.

UPS is looking for more than 900 seasonal workers in Indianapolis, including package handlers, package car and truck drivers and driver helpers. The jobs range in starting pay from $10.15 an hour for package handlers to $30 an hour for truck drivers. UPS is about halfway through its seasonal hiring, said Rob Morrow, the company's human resources manager in Indianapolis.

UPS has introduced incentives this year to compete against other companies. Workers can get a $250 bonus for staying 30 days, another $250 bonus after 90 days and a $500 bonus for staying through the season. UPS also offers college students up to $25,000 in tuition reimbursement over the course of a degree program.

"Applicants now have multiple choices when it comes to what jobs are out there and what they choose to take," Morrow said. "We are seeing that as we're having interviews and conversations with the applicant, they may have two or three different companies they're looking at and trying to make a decision, not just one option with UPS."

U.S. retail hiring is expected to be even with last year, when employers added 738,800 seasonal jobs during the fourth quarter, according to workplace consultant Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. National chains such as Macy's Inc., Target Corp. and J.C. Penney Co. have announced plans to add similar numbers of seasonal workers this year. Penney, in a statement to IndyStar, said it is seeking 170 sales associates in the Indianapolis area.

Yet, Challenger notes, the increasing popularity of e-commerce is creating more transportation and warehousing jobs that could push overall seasonal hiring up this year. Target, for instance, has said it will add 7,500 seasonal workers to its distribution centers across the United States on top of its in-store jobs.

That trend is opening up a disproportionate number of jobs for people in central Indiana, which is a Midwest distribution hub for many retailers, including e-commerce giant Amazon. The Seattle company is hiring an eye-popping 6,000 seasonal workers in central Indiana as part of a national plan to hire 120,000 people, a 20% spike over 2015.

Amazon has distribution operations in Indianapolis, Whitestown and Plainfield, Indiana. To expand its field of candidates, Amazon is offering public transportation options for workers, including shuttle service from the Indiana State Fairgrounds to its fulfillment center in Whitestown. The jobs range in salary between $12 and $16.50 per hour, according to a website advertising the jobs.

"We're offering a mix of full-time and part-time positions," Amazon spokeswoman Nina Lindsey said. "All of them have great pay, and all of them are offering opportunities to potentially stay on in regular full-time roles after the holidays, which is a really exciting prospect for a lot of candidates."

FedEx, another company that does big business during the holidays thanks to e-commerce, is hiring more than 1,000 seasonal employees in Indianapolis at a starting salary of $12.62 per hour. The company's hiring plans are on par with 2015, in part because it has been raising staffing levels throughout the year.

"Due to the growth of e-commerce and growth of our ground network, we've been hiring pretty much year-round to support that growth," FedEx spokeswoman Jennifer Caccavo Cordeau said. "It definitely picked up in September."

Consumers plan to spend an average of $1,121 on holiday shopping this year, up 10% over 2015, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey. A quarter of consumers say they plan to spend more online this year.

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