With the holiday season nearly upon us, many retailers are scaling up their workforce to handle anticipated surges in customers over the coming two months. While smaller stores may hire just a few additional part-time workers to ensure they have extra bodies on the floor at high traffic times, other companies are scaling up on a far more extreme level. Of course, this raises several questions about training. First, how rigorous or extensive should one’s training program be if the intent is only to retain the workforce in question for the holiday season? Second, what is the ROI when you train workers who will only be with your company for a few weeks or months? Finally and most importantly, how does a company train anywhere 20,000 to 100,000 workers virtually over night to fill temporary seasonal roles?

Training seasonal employees to be better

Who’s Hiring this Season and On What Scale?

Last year, Amazon hired 80,000 seasonal workers. This year, the company has announced that it will hire up to 100,000 workers to handle its holiday traffic in an effort to ensure that all those books, DVDs, children’s toys and kitchen gadgets are packaged and delivered on time, and this is in addition to the more than 25,000 full-time associates the company has hired since August to help prepare for this year’s holiday season.

The hiring surge at Amazon largely reflects the fact that seasonal shopping increasingly takes place online, creating a huge demand for customer service representatives and of course, warehouse workers from late October to early January. This likely explains why Amazon will hire more than J.C. Penney’s and Walmart combined this season. That said, traditional retailers are still hiring.

Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s will add an estimated 85,000 workers across its retail outlets. Walmart will also be hiring and expects to add an additional 60,000 workers. J.C. Penney will add approximately 30,000 employees while Nordstrom will hire approximately 12,000 seasonal employees. Other popular holiday retailers are also actively recruiting employees with Toys R Us looking to add 40,000 workers and Target looking to add 70,000 employees. Since much of the consumer traffic this season will take place online, it’s no surprise that UPS and FedEx are also scaling up their workforce. UPS expects to hire up to 95,000 additional workers and FedEx plans to hire 55,000 additional workers. But again, this raises several questions—how do you train thousands of workers in a short timeframe and what’s the ROI for investing in training if the workers in question will likely only be with you for a few weeks or months? To answer this question, let’s consider how a few of the aforementioned companies handle training temporary and seasonal workers.

Three Approaches to Training Temporary and Seasonal Employees

Not surprisingly, most major retailers are tight-lipped about how they train their workers. After all, if you’ve figured out how to train 20,000 to 100,000 workers in just a few weeks, you probably at least think you’ve got an award winning formula that is worth keeping secret. Curiosity about how large companies handle training, however, has led a growing number of journalists to engage in investigative reporting on the topic—sometimes leading veteran reporters to take on temporary positions inside these companies (e.g., last year, two UK journalists—a writer at The Observer and documentary journalist at the BBC—even found themselves working at the same Amazon warehouse simultaneously as they attempted to get the inside scope on the company’s training program and working conditions). In the US, there has also been a growing number of inside stories on companies like Amazon and Walmart—most reports, however, have been posted by aspiring journalists who have taken such positions out of necessity and not simply out of journalistic curiosity.


In the popular online magazine, Gawker, Hamilton Nolan, a recent college grad,  reported on her Amazon warehouse experience. Hired through a staffing agency, Nolan was, like many of Amazon’s seasonal workers, not an employee of the company but of the staffing agency. She describes her onboarding experience as follows: “In the hiring process you go to [the staffing agency] and give over 4 hours of your life…You are basically chattel, herded from one station to the next: Application, test, drug test, scheduling and then orientation. The test, consists of being able to answer questions about books, DVDs, etc.” If called back, as Nolan was, you then undergo Amazon’s warehouse training program, which in her case took the following form: “When you get there half of your [first] shift is training, with emphasis about stealing and sexual harassment. Then you go to the job you were hired for and train.” In Nolan’s case, this consisted of “picking up items from a cart, scanning them and putting them into the correct cubby.” According to Nolan, her only formal training consisted of a short introductory session meant to ensure compliance and reduce theft.


In 2012, Travis Okulski published an insider story on his experience of working at Walmart. In fact, Okulski worked at Walmart on several occasions throughout his college years. He reports that the application process is time-consuming, albeit perhaps not as time-consuming as the one described by Nolan at Amazon: “I sat at a kiosk in the store for about an hour filling out a questionnaire which mainly was intended to see how I would react in certain situations that employees would face, such as confrontations with coworkers and observing theft.” Okulski got a call back, was invited for an interview, and eventually informed that he would onboard as an associate in the automotive department. In contrast to Nolan’s Amazon warehouse experience, Okulski reports that he spent “the majority of my first few days in the training room on computer terminals, learning proper store practices,” which he describes as “actually useful…if you pay attention.” Notably, Okulski also emphasizes that at Walmart, “You are encouraged by management to go back to the training room at any time during your employment to use the computers and learn more. They do not count as break time, and associates are paid while using them.”

More recent reports, however, suggest that Walmart is now adopting a much more rigorous training model, at least for permanent employees. As recently reported in Forbes: “Front-line employees—cashiers, cart pushers and sales associates—will now spend their first months at the company in a supervised on-the-job training program. In the past, they sat through a few days of orientation and safety drills, many of them focused on compliance with environmental and health regulations. The only real job training happened in the store—knowledge passed on by more experienced employees.” This, of course, will likely not hold true for seasonal workers, since they will only be on the job for a month to six-weeks in many cases.


In contrast to aforementioned retailers, reports on UPS, gathered from employee testimonies on sites such as Glassdoor, repeatedly tell a similar story: seasonal jobs at UPS require only a short application, group discussion with an HR manager, and  brief interview (most reports indicate the interview is about 5 minutes long). Many candidates report being hired “on the spot” and called back from an orientation within days. While the interview process is short and to the point (candidates are typically only asked about their driving records and ability to work on their feet and lift heavy boxes), since 2010, UPS has relied on a company-wide learning management system, known as “UPS University,” to offer ongoing training to both its seasonal and permanent employees. The system is one of the ways the company manages to onboard and train thousands of seasonal employees every year with a high rate of success.

Best Practices for Onboarding Seasonal Employees

Best Practices for Onboarding Seasonal Employees

While you may not be planning to hire an additional 100,000 or even 5,000 workers this season, even small companies (e.g., those who need to onboard an additional 15 or 100 employees during the holiday season) need to quickly and effectively train incoming workers. While a learning management system may appear out of reach or unnecessary for a smaller company, in fact, learning management systems are within the financial reach of even the smallest family-owned businesses and can help support best practices in training.

Embrace mLearning

If you experience seasonal surges and need to onboard and train a few dozen or a few thousand employees, mobile learning has much to offer. A learning management system designed to be accessed from a smartphone will enable you to start training new employees as soon as a hiring offer is made and more importantly, give employees the ability to carry vital training information with them at all times, especially on the job.

Choose a Learning Management System that Allows for Ongoing Updates

Throughout the holiday season, you’ll need to keep your employees up to date on new products, sales, promotions and strategies. Choose an LMS that enables you to easily modify existing content and/or introduce new content; this will guarantee that your training program is moving as fast as your business throughout the holiday season.

Gather Feedback and Evaluate Data

Choose a learning management system with automatic advanced reporting in order to keep track of who has completed your training sessions and how often specific content is being accessed.

What’s the ROI?

If your company delivers the wrong products or delivers products in damaged condition, the consequences are great. The same holds true for poor customer service. In short, poor training or no training, even of temporary workers, comes at a risk. For more, also see our white paper on the value of training contingent workers.