Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Seasonal Rhythms in the Workplace

I find this time of year a little depressing. Some of this malaise is because now is back-to-school season, and I never liked school (until I got to college). But I think a large share of my seasonal discontent stems from growing up in a beach town that effectively died each year at the end of summer. Although I didn’t think about it while I was growing up, I’m sure now that a lot of jobs also died each year when the beaches closed down. But seasonal employment is not restricted to beach towns and the summer jobs found there. You may be surprised at how many different seasons our economy experiences and the jobs that wax and wane with these seasons.

In the days when the economy was primarily agricultural, almost everybody was a seasonal worker. But even though nowadays farming employs a much smaller workforce, agriculture indirectly creates other seasonal job opportunities. In the apple-orchard hills of central Pennsylvania where my wife grew up, the canning plants still take on extra workers each autumn. Compared to most sectors of the manufacturing industry, food processing is much less threatened by foreign competition, so its seasonal rhythms will continue to affect employment patterns in agricultural regions for the foreseeable future.

In the retail industry, the main seasonal phenomenon is Christmas, of course. The December uptick in retail traffic creates opportunities for more than just those who directly handle merchandise, such as sales clerks and warehouse workers. It also creates jobs for security guards and loss-prevention officers, plus the workers at the food courts in shopping malls. Internet shopping has reduced some of the hurly-burly at retail stores, but it has created many seasonal jobs for package deliverers and order fillers.

Winter also gives a lift to the economy in tropical beach towns, on cruise ships, and near ski slopes. In northern states, snow removal provides many seasonal work hours. Furnaces are running more hours of the day and are inevitably breaking down and needing service by mechanics. Hospital emergency rooms typically are busiest at this time of year, treating people for flu, asthma attacks, and broken bones caused by slips and falls.

Accountants, financial clerks, and tax preparers get particularly busy in the winter and early spring, as tax documents need to be prepared and filed at this time of year. As spring progresses, nursery and greenhouse workers work extra hours to raise young plants for summer gardens.

Summer creates jobs not only in beach towns like my birthplace, but also in and around national parks and at lake resorts. Amusement parks and traveling carnivals take on workers. (It’s interesting that in Spain and some other warm-weather countries, the time and place for carnival rides is the Christmas season in shopping districts; one parent puts the children on rides while the other parent is shopping for presents.)

Some workers are able to shift from one job to another as the seasons change. For example, in my hometown a music teacher and a math teacher used their summers away from the classroom to run a miniature golf course on the Boardwalk. One of the English teachers worked at a soft ice cream stand near the beach.

In some occupations, the workers are employed year-round but are engaged in very different tasks according to the season. I once had a neighbor whose business consisted of painting stripes on parking lots. In the summer he was busy laying down white and yellow stripes, but in the winter he was lining up next summer’s clients and submitting designs. Many other businesses in the construction industry follow a similar rhythm.

Many of the job I have mentioned here provide opportunities for young people, especially during the summer vacation from school. On the other hand, as baby boomers get closer to retirement, seasonal jobs may provide opportunities for them to shift from year-round work to a schedule that is less continuously demanding.

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