He's making a LinkedIn profile. He's checking it twice. He's gonna find out which employers are naughty or nice. Santa Claus is coming to town -- and he needs a job.
While the unemployment rate dropped to 7.7% last month, as the Labor Department reported today, more and more Santa Clauses around the country are going without work this holiday season. There's no official Kris Kringle employment index, but agencies that place Santas at gigs around the country say the prospects for many of the men in red suits is Ho-ho-hopeless. "There's no question about it, the number of Santas out there looking for work has grown," says Jennifer Andrews, headmaster of the Santa School in Calgary, Alberta, which supplies Santas to stores and malls in the U.S. and around the world. She says enrollment increased fourfold this year. "And there's not a lot of room for untrained Santas."
The bringing of joy and presents to children around the world would seem to be as recession-proof a career as barber or undertaker. And that, North Pole experts say, is precisely the problem. When the economy tanked and unemployment rose, many baby boomers looked to Santa's job as easy money. "There are folks who look at the job of Santa and say, 'I can do that,'" says Tim Connaghan, 64, CEO of The Kringle Group, an agency in Riverside, Calif., with over 2,200 Santas on its books. Susen Mesco, the director of American Events & Promotions in Denver says attendance at her Professional Santa Claus School doubled this year. Many Santas want to start their own businesses, she says, and are seeking "a sideline career utilizing their gray hairs and bowls full of jelly."
But there's far more to the job than an oversized midsection and a willingness to cater to the whims of whimpering children. The best Santas tend to have a background in entertainment, industry pros say. They also need to be aggressive about their marketing, adding a "ho-ho-ho" to their voicemails, handing out business cards and staying in character when kids tug their beards on the street. "There's nothing more capitalistic than Santa Claus," says Mark Steiner, CEO of Gigsalad.com, an online event-planning database. Santas, like any good salesperson, must always be closing, he says. "If they think they can hide behind a beard and a fat suit, they've missed the sleigh."
The standards are high. Santa Ric Erwin, 55, has done TV commercials for companies like Dell, Intel, Sprint and Zappos. The Laguna Niguel, Calif.-based Kris Kringle, who is vice president and director of the 860-member Fraternal Order of Real-Bearded Santas, says he no longer needs to audition: "At the risk of sounding like a braggadocio, I've acquired a reputation among casting directors and producers in Southern California."
However, there is a finite number of television commercials and shopping malls to go around and many locations hire more than a year in advance. For instance, Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. -- which plays host to 40 million visitors a year -- has just two official Santas, says spokesman Dan Jasper. One has worked there for five years, while the other is a "by-appointment only" Santa who has been there for a decade. Noerr Programs a digital imaging and marketing company in Arvada, Colo., that supplies Santas to over 230 venues nationwide, including New York's Plaza Hotel -- secures similar tenures. "Once we find a particular gentleman for a mall he will stay there for years or even decades," says spokeswoman Ruth Rosenquist. "It's rare when an existing position opens up."
For celebrity impersonation work, it also isn't very lucrative. Few working Santas can expect pay packets as fat as their waistlines, experts say. Seasonal pay for positions in shopping malls range from $5,000 to $15,000 at high-end malls, Connaghan says. "There is a small group that possibly makes more than that," he adds, "but you could probably count them on your two hands." For personal appearances, Erwin charges $150 for the first hour, $125 for the second and $100 for every hour after that. "Most Santas don't really want to walk out the door for less than $150 for a visit," Steiner says, while other Santas with professional training and acting experience could charge up to $250 an hour. In shopping malls, "you could have 100 snot-nosed kids sitting on your lap for an hour," he says, but that's in return for regular seasonal work.
None of these challenges have put off underemployed Santas like George Kane, 56. Though he started doing Santa gigs in Yulan, N.Y., four years ago when kids approached him on the street believing him to be the man from the North Pole, he has not yet made big bucks as the big man. A former medical emergency technician and scuba instructor, he took early retirement two years ago and recently had a hip replacement to relieve disabling arthritis. Kane -- a naturally bearded Santa -- is offering his services for just $30 for an hour or $50 for two hours. Given how tough the market is, he now plans to use the Internet and social networking to more aggressively market himself. "If I can get back into the workforce doing this I'd be very happy," he says.