FORT WORTH, Texas -- Terry Lee and Bruce Sledge meet three to four days a week in the group study section of the Tarrant County College South Campus library.
Textbooks and manuals with titles like Air Conditioning System and Design and pages showing psychometric charts that illustrate the physical and thermal properties of moist air are scattered between them.
For two older military veterans who haven't been full-time students in about 30 years, it is pretty heavy stuff.
"I graduated high school in 1969, so I've got some cobwebs," Sledge, a 60-year-old Air Force veteran, said with a chuckle. "These days they have PowerPoint and computers and new technology and everything is at a hyper rate of speed. But I'm ready for the challenge."
Who's Hiring For The Holidays
New Federal Job Training Program For Vets: Overwhelmed Already
Seasonal job openings: 5,200
A staple of many shopping malls across the nation, the gourmet gift basket retailer relies heavily on holiday sales to add to its profits. A privately held company, Hickory Farms perennially hires as many as 6,000 seasonal workers to work at its stores, which it calls "Holiday Gift Centers." Though many jobs involve interacting with customers, the company also needs additional workers to fill stock and labor positions, which may include driving in some locations, it says.
Though it has no bricks-and-mortar stores to staff, Amazon.com Inc.'s seasonal hiring plans are nonetheless robust. It needs plenty of additional workers to help fill orders and keep products moving through its warehouses nationwide. The Seattle-based company, which is unveiling a new line of Kindle-brand electronic readers and tablets, also plans to add 2,000 new jobs at three new distribution centers to help deal with demand driven by the new devices.
The department store operator announced it September that it would ramp up holiday hiring by more than 10 percent from last year to support its business in stores and online. Wisconsin-based Kohl's Corp., which operates 1,134 stores in 49 states, plans to hire an average of 41 workers at each store, a 4 percent increase from last year. The company also expects to add about 5,700 seasonal positions at distribution centers and more than 30 seasonal credit operations jobs.
The former No. 1 seller of toys in the U.S., Toys R Us Inc. credits a gradually improving economy and an increase in consumer spending for its decision to hire 11 percent more seasonal workers than the 40,000 it did in 2011. Of those it hired last year, Toys R Us says roughly 15 percent of them were kept on after the holiday sales season ended.
The holidays are the busiest time of year for the world's largest retailer and the company plans to hire more than 50,000 temporary workers to help keep store shelves and move customers through checkout lines as the 2012 holiday season approaches. Walmart Stores Inc. also plans to give existing employees the chance to work more hours during the season, acknowledging complaints among some workers who said they weren't able to work as many hours as they would have liked.
Though far smaller than rival Walmart, the nation's No. 2 retailer nonetheless plans to hire plenty of holiday season workers in 2012. The Minnesota-based company plans to add 80,000 to 90,000 seasonal jobs, down a bit from the 92,000 it hired last year. Hiring forecasts are likely be held in check by Target's expectations of an "ultracompetitive" holiday sales season. Target Corp., along with Walmart, is keeping an eye on expenses, which of course includes labor costs, so as to lower prices and stimulate sales.
The king of all department stores, Cincinnati-based Macy's Inc. said it's hiring nearly 3 percent more seasonal staff than it did last year, in anticipation of higher holidays sales. Sales associates and call center employees are among the positions Macy's is looking to fill, which also include those in its distribution and fulfillment centers, to support the department store operator's growing online business.
Best Buy Co. plans to hire about 9,000 more seasonal workers as it did last year, though this year's number is still below the 29,000 it hired in 2010. In July, the world's largest consumer electronics chain cut 600 of its "Geek Squad" employees in response to weak sales. The boost in seasonal hiring is helping to contribute to what analysts say is the best year of seasonal-job creation that the U.S. has seen in five years.
Much like Best Buy, GameStop has seen its sales erode as more and more consumers turn to buying online. Faced with strong competitors such as Amazon, GameStop has nonetheless managed to hold its own in terms of sales and profits. As with most retailers, the Grapevine, Texas-based company derives much of its sales during the all-important holiday sales season -- and its more than 4,400 stores in the U.S. need more staff to help keep those cash registers ringing.
J.C. Penney Co. has struggled to remake its namesake JCPenney stores into a retail business that's more modern and less reliant on discounts to draw customers. And the coming holiday shopping season will be an important test of whether the signs of improvement that Plano, Texas-based company has lately been showing are real or not. Sales are expected to be tepid this holiday season, but at least one company representative says that won't affect the need for seasonal workers. "[It] looks like there will be another increase this year over last year's hiring," said, Bob Parker, a site manager for JCPenney in Sarasota, Fla., "probably by as much as 10 to 20 percent in some cases."
The fall is prime season for privately held Party City Holdings Inc., which is perhaps best known as a seller of Halloween costumes. But the retailer also sells party supplies and seasonal decorations, which result in a steady flow of customers this time of year. The Rockaway, N.J.-based company has 600 stores nationwide. In addition to its namesake Party City stores, it also operates The Paper Factory, Halloween City and Factory Card & Party Outlet shops.
It takes a lot more workers to help move the millions of boxes and packages Americans send to each other each holiday season. And though FedEx Corp. expects shipping volume will be up 13 percent, it's hiring about as many workers as it did last holiday season. The company says it can stick with the same number of seasonal workers as last year because it has been hiring staff throughout 2012.
The Memphis, Tenn.-based company, which is closely watched as an indicator of consumer demand and economic health, anticipates handling more than 280 million shipments during the holiday season from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Competitor UPS added about 55,000 workers for the holidays last year, 10 percent more than it hired in 2010.
With expectations of delivering 527 million packages this holiday season, UPS Inc. is adding 55,000 workers to sort, load and deliver packages, the same number it hired last year, but 10 percent higher than in 2010. Based on the company's forecast, it appears those and full-time UPS workers will be busiest during the final week before the Christmas holiday. UPS says 28 million, or 5 percent of packages, will be delivered Thursday, Dec. 20 -- projected to be the busiest of the year.
Sledge and Lee, 50, are among the nearly 50,000 unemployed veterans nationally who have been approved for the Department of Veterans Affairs' new job-training and education program. It is a one-time shot for veterans ages 35 to 60 to get a year of course work in fields offering a high potential for future employment.
The Veterans Retraining Assistance Program was created as part of the VOW to Hire Heroes Act passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in 2011.
A flood of applications from out-of-work veterans suggests the demand for training is strong. Since the program opened for enrollment in May, Veterans Affairs has received 61,186 applications and approved 48,120. The goal is to train 99,000 veterans over the next two years.
The program is not intended to help veterans get four-year degrees, but rather certificates or training in growing industries, Veterans Affairs officials say. Computer support, business operations and substance-abuse counseling are among the jobs veterans are seeking.
"What it is designed for is to make our veterans quickly eligible to get back into the job market in high-demand occupations," said Phyllis Curtis, education officer at the VA Regional Office in Muskogee, Okla., which oversees the North Texas program. "We're very pleased with the level of interest."
The unemployment rate for veterans was 6.6 percent in August, compared to the national rate of 8.1.
Sledge and Lee were both without jobs when they learned about the program, known as VRAP.
Lee knew nothing of it when he showed up at the Tarrant County College registrar's office this spring to get information about the school's heating, ventilation and air conditioning program. He served for about six years in the Air Force until he was honorably discharged in 1986.
Economic reasons forced him to give up his roofing and construction business in April 2011, and he had been out of work since, he said.
"They asked me if I was a veteran and I said, 'Why, yes, I am,' " said Lee, a Fort Worth resident. "I was overjoyed when they told me I was eligible. Didn't even know the program existed and now it's really turning into a big help."
The VRAP program pays participants $1,473 a month for schooling costs, Curtis said.
Counselors who work with veterans say the program is not for all their clients. It requires legwork by the applicant: Find a school within program parameters, get the field of study approved, show that you are unemployed, etc., said James Frost, a lead veteran employment representative with the Texas Veterans Commission.
Because the stipend is a reimbursement, the participant may have to pay some costs upfront, he said.
"You have to really get your ducks in a row," Frost said. "It would help a lot for people to have some kind of support network to help get through the training."
It is too early in the program to know how many people are completing it, said Jessica Jacobsen, a spokeswoman at the Dallas Veterans Affairs office.
Lee, who last attended school in the early 1980s, said he is still making the transition from business owner to student with a 15-hour course load. Algebra skills that he hasn't used in decades have faded, he said.
"Math skills are like a muscle: If you don't use them every day, you're going to lose them," he said. "This program is very intense and very demanding."
Lee and Sledge said there are several other veterans enrolled in the TCC program who are VRAP participants. Usually, it is only the two men in the library after class, but Sledge said he hoped others in the class would soon join them.
On this morning, the men flipped pages in their textbooks and reviewed their charts.
Being a student isn't easy, but Sledge said the men will finish the program.
"We're going to do it," he said. "Too good of an opportunity to let it pass by."