By Christopher Leonard & Mae Anderson, AP Business Writers
Mara Proctor used to design limestone hearths and columns for luxury homes near Kansas City, drawing on her college education and six years of training.
These days, she's leading customers around a store that sells sculptured snowmen and Santa figurines.
It isn't by choice. Until a few weeks ago, Proctor was among the record 5.9 million Americans who have been jobless for at least six months. Now she belongs to a subset of that group: Out-of-work professionals and managers, engineers and teachers who have turned, in desperation, to holiday-season jobs as sales clerks.
Retailers report a surge in applications this year from professionals who had never applied for such jobs before.
"You'll find Wall Street stock brokers and small business owners trying to find temporary retail jobs during the holidays," said Ellen Davis, vice president of the National Retail Federation.
The pay is low, the jobs temporary. And the work is hardly equal to their experience or expertise. Yet the nation's unemployment crisis left these people jobless so much longer than they'd expected that many count themselves fortunate to have anything.Laid off eight months ago, Proctor said she figured, "OK, I'll do the unemployment thing for a couple of weeks and get a new job."
"It was very naive," she said. "You start calling all your contacts, and you find out they're all laid off, too, so your contacts list doesn't mean anything."
In a bleak labor market, holiday-season hiring has meant at least a respite for many long-term unemployed. Not that it's easy to land even these jobs. Most retailers have cut back. And overall in the economy, six applicants, on average, are competing for each opening — compared with just 1.7 workers per opening when the recession began in December 2007.
For the stores, though, the availability of clerks with experience managing or working effectively with co-workers is a luxury. They've been able to cull the excellent from the merely qualified.
"It enables us to be somewhat more selective and hire a higher-caliber" clerk, said Glenn Album, vice president of human resources at Toys "R" Us. Album said the company this year has hired, among others, former teachers and an accountant.