Mara Proctor used to design limestone hearths and columns for luxury homes near Kansas City, drawing on her college education and six years of training.
These days, she's leading customers around a store that sells sculptured snowmen and Santa figurines.
It isn't by choice. Until a few weeks ago, Proctor was among the record 5.9 million Americans who have been jobless for at least six months. Now she belongs to a subset of that group: Out-of-work professionals and managers, engineers and teachers who have turned, in desperation, to holiday-season jobs as sales clerks.
Retailers report a surge in applications this year from professionals who had never applied for such jobs before.
"You'll find Wall Street stock brokers and small business owners trying to find temporary retail jobs during the holidays," said Ellen Davis, vice president of the National Retail Federation.
The pay is low, the jobs temporary. And the work is hardly equal to their experience or expertise. Yet the nation's unemployment crisis left these people jobless so much longer than they'd expected that many count themselves fortunate to have anything.
Laid off eight months ago, Proctor said she figured, "OK, I'll do the unemployment thing for a couple of weeks and get a new job."
"It was very naive," she said. "You start calling all your contacts, and you find out they're all laid off, too, so your contacts list doesn't mean anything."
In a bleak labor market, holiday-season hiring has meant at least a respite for many long-term unemployed. Not that it's easy to land even these jobs. Most retailers have cut back. And overall in the economy, six applicants, on average, are competing for each opening — compared with just 1.7 workers per opening when the recession began in December 2007.
For the stores, though, the availability of clerks with experience managing or working effectively with co-workers is a luxury. They've been able to cull the excellent from the merely qualified.
"It enables us to be somewhat more selective and hire a higher-caliber" clerk, said Glenn Album, vice president of human resources at Toys R Us. Album said the company this year has hired, among others, former teachers and an accountant.
"What's great with the higher-caliber team members is there is much, much better service in the store," he said.
On a cold morning before Thanksgiving, Proctor jangled a set of keys and opened the Sticks boutique for business at the Country Club Plaza shopping district in Kansas City. When she was laid off in March, the notion of a retail job didn't even cross her mind.
At 32, she had spent six years hopping easily from job to job in the home-design business, seeking out higher responsibilities and pay with each move. Last year, she worked for a contractor, using computer drafting programs to draw floor plans.
After her layoff, she thought she'd be marketable. But the market had collapsed. By late summer, Proctor had burned through much of her personal savings.
She leapt at the chance to work temporarily as manager of a Sticks location, selling handmade wooden sculptures. Still, the job lasts only until Jan. 6. After that, she'll be unemployed again.
Retailers pay their sales clerks an average of about $13 an hour, the government estimates. Proctor declined to say how much she's paid, beyond saying it's well below what she earned as a designer. But it's more than the $400 a week she'd been collecting in unemployment benefits.
At Hoffman's Chocolates in West Palm Beach, Fla., the lavish holiday display of Christmas lights, toy trains and a robotic Santa Claus draws onlookers each year. But finding skilled workers for the holiday rush used to be difficult, said CEO Fred Meltzer.
Until this year. When it posted 45 jobs in its chocolate factory and on the sales floor, Hoffman's received 550 applications. Some came from people laid off by the circulation department of the Palm Beach Post. Others had worked for law firms. Another was Lisa Pagan, a former department store manager.
Once she heard Hoffman's was hiring, Pagan said she put on her best job-interview outfit — just to drop off her resume. She landed a position that pays less than half what she made last year as a department-store manager. But after a year of unemployment, Pagan, a 38-year-old divorced mother of two, isn't complaining.
"It's very scary out there right now," she said. "You get 101 excuses why they can't hire you. You get into panic mode."
At the Showtime Detroit clothing boutique in the Motor City, manager Dan Tatarian has been fielding inquiries from mortgage brokers, among others, desperate for work.
"They just want a job," Tatarian said. "They don't care what they're doing."
The trend illustrates the despair of unemployed people with professional backgrounds who face a pitiless job market, said John Lonski, chief economist of Moody's Capital Markets Research Group. Even though the economy has begun growing again, employers aren't confident enough in the recovery or their own businesses to step up hiring.
"Companies are still capable of meeting customer demands with their now often downsized staffs," Lonski said.
Competition is especially fierce for retail jobs, in part because the industry has cut 1 million jobs since January 2008, said Davis of the National Retail Federation. Many retailers, fearing another weak holiday season, are trying to manage with leaner staffs.
"Not only are there fewer positions, but more people are applying," Davis said.
That helps explain why shoppers who phone customer service at online retailer Moosejaw Mountaineering get Scott Beebe, a trained engineer with two postgraduate degrees and eight years of experience in product development for General Motors.
Beebe, 33, took a buyout from GM in September, feeling the future was bleak at the shrinking automaker. With experience at a development lab where he earned about $75,000, Beebe has since been seeking engineering or management work. No luck.
So in the meantime, he's taken a temporary job at Moosejaw's call center in suburban Detroit. He's making $8 an hour.
"It's a good distraction from searching day in and day out," he said.