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It's a good time for Quad-City residents who hope to pick up work over the holiday season, according to industry leaders. 

With unemployment at an 18-year low in the Quad-Cities — the rate was 3.7 percent in September — companies are expecting stiffer competition when it comes to hiring seasonal help this year. Some businesses have already proven they're willing to spend more, beef up benefits and offer flexible hours to find the help they need. 

"We are seeing an increase in the labor market right now, so retailers have been very competitive in offerings to make sure they can get the right skill sets employed for the variety of jobs open," said Ana Serafin Smith, with the National Retail Federation. 

The U.S. job market is the tightest it's been in five decades, and Serafin Smith said consumer confidence is near an 18-year high. There are a record 7.14 million open jobs in the U.S. economy, which is more than the number of unemployed Americans, according to the Labor Department.

With a strong job market and consumer confidence high, the National Retail Federation predicts holiday sales will increase between 4.3 and 4.8 percent, compared to last year. Serafin Smith said companies are feeling even more pressure to fill jobs early. 

"It's a really tight labor market, so retailers have started hiring seasonal workers as early as July," she said. "They hire them for the back-to-school season, which is the second largest shopping season, and then some are keeping those folks on board until January." 

Retail chain, Kohl's, for example, started advertising seasonal jobs in June. Others, such as Gordman's, Dick's Sporting Goods and JCPenney have held job fairs in the past few months.

In the days of low unemployment, Serafin Smith said retaining employees is more important than ever. Walmart, for example, offered current employees more hours and paid time off, rather than hiring a new group of workers. 

The United States Postal Service is hiring 350 seasonal employees throughout Iowa and western Illinois, with competitive wages starting at $15 per hour, spokeswoman Kristy Anderson said. 

In Iowa and the Quad-Cities, she said USPS is hiring around 170 mail handlers and 89 holiday clerks, where no exam is required. But USPS also offers seasonal jobs that can lead to future careers, such as mail processing clerks and carriers. 

"What happens when we bring people in for seasonal jobs is they realize they enjoy what they do and see there are other opportunities," Anderson said. "We help them go through the exam process and they can convert a seasonal job into a career." 

Even with some seasonal jobs paying more than $17 per hour, Anderson said USPS has struggled to fill positions.

"It's really hard for us this time of year because we also face competition from retail. They always bulk up hiring at the malls, Target and department stores," Anderson said. "So it's really whoever can cross the finish line first to get people in the door."

In recent years, she said USPS has increased pay and offered more competitive benefit packages.  

Other companies are also reevaluating wages this season. Target is hiring 20 percent more seasonal workers than last year, for example, and has raised its starting wage to $12 per hour. 

JCPenney spokesman Carter English said the chain held a national hiring event earlier this month and is hiring more than 100 seasonal associates in the Quad-Cities area, plus 350 employees across Iowa, he said. 

He said the company has jobs open for all skill levels, plus flexible hours and a 25 percent discount on store items.

"New this year, JCPenney is introducing generous reward packages to eight randomly drawn associates as a way to attract and retain associates this holiday season," English said, adding awards include $5,000 trips to Canada, New York City and Miami. 

Serafin Smith said companies are offering packages that have been "unheard of" in the world of seasonal hiring. 

"Some retailers are offering paid time off, which we've never heard a lot of them do before for seasonal employees. And the same with benefits, that's been unheard of," she said. "And we're also hearing a lot of retailers are paying for certification programs for seasonal hires so they can continue learning different skills and continue with the company." 

With the chance to retain a seasonal job longer, and have them potentially make more money and better benefits, Serafin Smith said it should be a healthy holiday hiring, and shopping, season. 

"What's really difficult is the retail industry is competing with a variety of other sectors right now as well," she said. "There's health care, pharma, manufacturing and warehouse centers. So we're competing with all of these industries for the same workers. That means competitive salaries are going to be more common to keep folks happy to keep working." 

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