MANATEE -- Santa Claus has come a little early this year for more than 27,000 local residents out of work for the holiday season.
Retailers across Manatee and Sarasota counties have begun hiring to fill thousands of temporary positions to prepare for the busiest shopping months of the year.
Companies from Macy's, Bealls, Lowe's and Toys R Us are hiring locally.
Store operators are expecting a strong fourth-quarter between the holidays and annual return of the snowbirds, so they're staffing accordingly.
The relief, even if short-lived, could help bring some stability to an economy that's still searching for level ground.
"The retail sector has steadily improved over the last four months, and we expect that to continue as we head into the time when tourism ramps up," said Sally Hill, spokeswoman for Suncoast Workforce. "There's still a lot of folks out of work. This is going to create some opportunities."
A recent uptick in retail hiring has pushed the jobless rate between Manatee
and Sarasota down to 9.1 percent in August, a considerable improvement from the 11.2 percent mark one year ago.
Hill attributes the resurgence to improved consumer confidence in Florida, with shoppers more willing to reach for their wallets on discretionary items.
Retailers lost 3,500 area jobs in the 12 months leading up to August 2009. But during the past year, the industry rebounded to add about 1,400 new positions, records show.
A strong holiday season also should help.
Toys R Us plans to hire about 500 temporary employees in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Sarasota market, which includes the store in Bradenton.
The jobs are among 45,000 seasonal workers nationally that the chain will add to staff its stores and distribution centers -- a 13 percent jump from the year before.
And although it's mostly part-time and temporary work, 15 percent of the holiday help is retained beyond the season, the company said.
"We're looking for hard-working, reliable individuals who enjoy working as part of a team ..." Toys R Us spokeswoman Alyssa Peera said. "We offer seasonal positions for all job functions and shifts in our stores ranging from managerial roles and sales associates to inventory replenishment employees and omnichannel teams."
At Bradenton-based Bealls, the retailer also is accepting applications for jobs at both its outlet and department stores.
The company declined to say the total number of jobs it will add this year, but each of the 17 stores between the two county area are now hiring on an individual basis.
Bealls officials estimate about 10 percent more associates work on the floor at its outlet stores during the holidays, with the majority of the hiring slated to take place in early November to get staff trained in time for Black Friday.
"We always get a big demand from job seekers looking for holiday work," said Bill Webster, Bealls director of public and government affairs. "Some come back year after year."
Walmart too announced it will be adding 50,000 seasonal positions at its stores across North America, a modest improvement from 2011.
The retail giant could not give local or state breakdowns, with needs varying greatly by each market and individual store.
Others hiring for the holidays in the Bradenton area include Macy's, Lowe's, Best Buy, Publix, Sweet Bay, Kohls and Sears, according to the Employ Florida marketplace.
"Many customers are continuing to struggle as a result of the economy and high unemployment levels, but they have shown us that they're resilient," Gisel Ruiz, Walmart executive vice president and chief operating officer, said in an email statement. "They're committed to giving their families a memorable Christmas ... By offering more hours and more jobs, we hope our associates can do the same."
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman