Why retail is facing a seasonal worker crisis, and what to do about it

Peak period is the busiest time for most retailers. There’s typically an influx of seasonal workers ahead of Christmas to cover shifts, and cater for the rush of crowds. But, amid labour shortages, there is a dearth of seasonal workers available, with Australian Retailers Association (ARA) CEO Paul Zahra describing the situation as the worst it has been in many decades. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed that there were 46,100 retail vacancies in August, up 14.4 per cent in M

t in March this year. This is despite overall job vacancies falling by 2.1 per cent over the same period.

This follows the ARA’s July poll, which revealed that 84 per cent of retailers believe it’s become harder to recruit new team members, while 73 and 55 per cent of retailers said that job vacancy rates and absenteeism have become worse.

Zahra told Inside Retail that the industry has seen a significant increase in the number of vacancies – almost the highest of any sector. He added that just about every retailer is currently affected by labour shortages.  

 “We are in a staffing crisis within retail, hospitality and many other sectors. Retail shortages are particularly pronounced with at least 46,000 vacancies across Australia,” he said. 

“Many businesses have been forced to reduce their trading hours – particularly small business and regional locations, where staff are harder to find, and the absence of one or two staff can make a significant difference to operating opportunities.”

He believes that hospitality, hairdressing, beauty and barbering businesses are intensely affected by the absence of qualified and trained professionals, from here or overseas. 

“Like other small businesses, these businesses have had to reduce their operating hours in many instances,” he said. 

‘Sadly, some have closed or been reduced to a solo operation.’

Struggling to fill positions

There’s a number of reasons as to why someone might look for seasonal, rather than permanent work.

According to Seek research from earlier this year, the main reasons why people took on Christmas jobs were for: extra income (53 per cent), to find something to do (36 per cent), for better/holiday pay (33 per cent) and to gain work experience (32 per cent).

Amazon’s director of Australian operations, Mindy Espidio-Garcia, said that 2,000 seasonal workers had been on-boarded to help pick, pack and ship customer orders at its sites, over the festive season.

Espidio-Garcia believes that seasonal work is a great opportunity for people looking for short term work – like students on their summer break, retirees or stay-at-home parents, who are after an additional source of income over the holiday period.

“With on-the-job training provided, the roles are suitable for people with a range of experience and skills [and] many seasonal roles offer a long-term path to employment at Amazon,” she said. 

Another key market segment for seasonal work are international students, and people with temporary working visas. Zahra explained that these workers are largely absent at the moment, with Australia becoming a less attractive place to visit and work.

He attributed this to extended Covid-19 lockdowns and JobKeeper not being available to foreign workers, Australia’s distance from the rest of the work, and it being cheaper and less bureaucratic to work in a European country

“These workers are still largely absent from Australia at the moment, creating pronounced worker shortages,” Zahra said.  

Seek senior economist, Matt Cowgill, said there’s no doubt that border restrictions and the lack of migrant workers over the past two years has had a serious impact on businesses.

He added that as businesses began reopening after lockdowns, and in the months since, many have struggled to find talent to fill positions. 

This has been keenly felt in hospitality and tourism – and the retail and consumer products industry – which have seen job ads between October 2019 and 2022 rise by 90.4 and 78.8 per cent respectively, according to Seek research.

“Over the course of the pandemic, we have seen the average number of applications per job ad decline most for jobs in relatively low-paid industries, of which seasonal work is counted,” Cowgill said. 

“As cost of living pressures go up, people gravitate toward fixed, permanent employment and salary becomes more of a drawcard.” 

Put your best foot forward

In light of all this, what can retailers do about job vacancies? 

While Zahra believes most Christmas hiring and rosters are now in place, Zahra suggests that retailers should plan and promote ongoing roles well ahead of deadlines, be mindful of competitive opportunities, and emphasise any strong or special benefits.

He also said that workplace and worker wellbeing are important to highlight, particularly coming out of a pandemic. 

Cowgill’s recommendation for retailers is to ensure that they put their best foot forward when posting job ads.This means showcasing to applicants what makes the business unique, and why people should want to work for the business. 

He adds that retailers should know their audience.

“Our Laws of Attraction data looks at the key drivers that attract candidates to job ads, and for retail and consumer products roles, work-life balance is the most important factor in the decision-making process,” Cowgill said

“Do you offer additional leave entitlements? Is there time in lieu? Make sure you are calling these out in the job ad.”

Melinda Krah

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