John Mattson, acting manager at the Toys R Us store in South Portland, talks about the struggles he has faced hiring employees. Mattson regularly serves barbecue lunches to thank faithful workers. Staff photo by Derek Davis

SOUTH PORTLAND — At the Toys R Us store near the Maine Mall, the growing pile of business cards on a table in the employee break room shows just how tight the job market is in southern Maine, especially among retailers.

Left by recruiters from Target, Lowe’s, Cracker Barrel, Macy’s, Hannaford and other retail and service companies, the cards have accumulated since the toy seller announced last week that it plans to close all 735 of its U.S. stores and put more than 30,000 employees out of work.

“We’ve got a ton of people coming in, saying, ‘We want your people,’ ” said John Mattson, acting manager of the store on Maine Mall Road. “I tell them to leave their business cards in the break room. Three of our people already went to Lowe’s. We can’t blame them for leaving under these circumstances.”

Exactly when Toys R Us stores will close is unclear. The liquidation sale started Friday, but Mattson said many customers didn’t wait for 60-percent-off deals.

“It was busy like Christmas in here as soon as word got out we were Chapter 11,” said Mattson, 50, who has worked for Toys R Us for three years.

The retailer filed for bankruptcy six months ago, then announced in January that it would close 182 U.S. stores, including Babies R Us in South Portland and Toys R Us in Bangor.

Last week, the 30 employees at the Toys R Us in South Portland learned they also will be out of a job, with paychecks promised for 60 days, through May 14, Mattson said. However, the store likely will remain open through June 30 as the company empties dolls, games and other toys from five warehouses across the country, he said.

RECORD-LOW UNEMPLOYMENT

Even as other companies poach his employees, Mattson said he’s trying to hire full-time temporary workers to staff the store through liquidation and closing. He knows it’s going to be a challenge because it’s been tough to hire and retain workers for a while, especially with a starting wage of $10.10 an hour.

At the same time, Maine has been experiencing record-low unemployment rates. February’s rate of 2.9 percent was a slight decrease from the previous month and the lowest it has been since 1976, according to the Maine Department of Labor. The latest U.S. unemployment rate was 4.1 percent, the lowest since 2001.

The labor market is especially tight in southern Maine, where the rate was 2.4 percent in Cumberland County and 3.2 percent in York County. Such low rates indicate the job market is at or near full employment, because qualified workers are generally employed and there is a shallow pool of labor available to step into vacant jobs.

Part of the problem for retailers is the pay they offer. Retail cashiers in Maine earned a median wage of $9.28 an hour in 2015, while retail sales positions paid a median wage of $10.71 an hour, according to the most recent Maine Department of Labor statistics.

Having an unskilled labor force also has proved challenging, said Curtis Picard, head of the Retail Association of Maine. That’s why the association helped to start a new credentialing program to train high school students to work in retail, with pilot programs in South Portland, Lewiston, Waterville and Thorndike.

“Retailers throughout the state are having a hard time finding qualified employees,” Picard said. “Anyone can pretty much walk into a store and get a job. That doesn’t mean they have the skills to do the job successfully.”

Vicki Brackley of Sabattus leaves the Toys R Us store in South Portland on Thursday with her children, Declan, 7, and Sage, 3. She said they drove down to the store because they had gift cards to use. Staff photo by Derek Davis

SEEKING QUALIFIED EMPLOYEES

Mattson, the Toys R Us manager, has experienced the lack of skills and commitment first hand.

People who work for a few days and never return, not even to pick up their paychecks. Employees who skip several days, then show up for work like nothing is amiss. He’s often forced to let it go because he needs the help.

The whole situation makes managing and scheduling workers something of a magic act that depends on a core group of good, dependable employees.

“And you end up working them to death,” said Mattson, who regularly serves barbecue lunches to thank faithful employees. One is scheduled for Saturday if the weather is anywhere above freezing.

Some recruiters declined to speak publicly about their desire to hire Toys R Us employees because of corporate restrictions. Spectrum was among the companies that had a business card on the break room table.

The cable communications company is expanding its Portland-area workforce, adding 120 customer-service jobs at its call center and trying to fill various other technical and customer-care positions.

“We are being proactive in this tight job market,” spokesman Andrew Russell said. “Our recruiters are out in the community, attending job fairs and meeting people to let them know about the great opportunities, training and benefits Spectrum offers.”

To help Spectrum recruit and retain qualified employees, the company will be paying a starting wage of $15 an hour within the year, Russell said.

Mattson, 50, said he’s not sure what he’ll do when Toys R Us closes. He enjoys retail work and hasn’t had much luck getting hired in other sectors, even though he’s an Air Force veteran with 25 years of experience in systems engineering and military intelligence.

“Nobody else will hire me because I don’t have a degree,” Mattson said.

Danielle Caron, a toy expert and events specialist who has worked at the South Portland store for seven years, isn’t sure, either. She’s thinking about building on the bachelor’s degree in English that she got at the University of Southern Maine.

“I might go back to school and get my master’s in creative writing,” she said, “or I might try to find an office job somewhere and just get out of retail.”

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KelleyBouchard

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.