Anyone who thought the US Postal Service was doomed to irrelevance in the digital age should think again. The agency is looking to hire 500 full-time letter carriers and postal clerks in Massachusetts to meet demand to deliver more packages.
The Postal Service said an aging workforce and a wave of retirements have caused the abundance of openings in the ranks of 13,000 in Eastern Massachusetts, but filling the vacancies has posed a challenge as Boston’s economy steams along.
It’s not always the most attractive job. You must like walking, of course — more than half the jobs are in the city, with its dense neighborhoods best navigated by foot, not truck. And you must be willing to deliver in any weather — you know what they say about snow, rain nor gloom of night.
Add to that relatively modest salaries (starting at $16.06 an hour) that don’t go far in the Boston region and job demands that can include hefting packages for mega-retailer Amazon.
“This is the most aggressive we’ve ever been in recruitment,” said John “Mike” Powers, district manager for the Greater Boston District of the US Postal Service and a 36-year employee. “Our biggest challenge is filling routes within Route 128, and the city of Boston.”
The hiring effort signals a potential change of fortune for the Postal Service, which had halted hiring during the 2008 recession and several years following it, Powers said.
Just three years ago, the Postal Service considered ending Saturday delivery of letters in an effort to pare $16 billion in losses. On Tuesday, the agency reported $5.6 billion in losses for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, blaming retiree health benefit obligations. But those losses were partly offset by a jump in revenue that the agency attributes to an increased volume of package delivery.
It’s a trend that’s been building for several years. Internet sales have been an unlikely savior, as the Postal Service has begun delivering an increasing number of packages for competitors such as FedEx and UPS, along with e-retailers such as Amazon. Nationally, revenues from package deliveries rose to $6.9 billion, up from $4.5 billion last year and $3.1 billion in 2010.
But more packages has meant the agency needs more people to deliver them at a time when its own workforce is aging.
In the Greater Boston district, extending from Boston to Worcester and the Cape and Islands, a third of postal workers are eligible to retire.
Together, those shifts have led to a surge in hiring for jobs that in generations past were considered a solid pathway to the American middle class.
The high cost of living in the Boston area has made that increasingly difficult, however. Typically, postal workers start as hourly employees, earning about $16-an-hour, with no guarantee of 40 hours. Most are eligible to become permanent employees in about a year, with pay starting around $37,000 a year, or about $17 an hour.
That pay doesn’t go far in Suffolk County, according to a “Living Wage Calculator” created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A person working full time would need to earn $24.41 an hour to support him or herself, another adult, and one child, it said. Two working adults need a minimum of a combined $17 an hour to raise a family with two children.
Postal Service officials said the pay rate can approach $60,000 and that overtime opportunities can bump pay much higher.
The Postal Service also gives preference to veterans, who currently make up about 18 percent of the national Postal Service workforce.
Larry Last, a postman for 40 years, is one of those carriers hanging up his satchel.
The 66-year-old Vietnam vet retired in early November. He said he never minded the job, which most recently included walking a 10-mile delivery route daily in Stoneham.
His postal pension will amount to 76 percent of his $60,000-a-year postal salary. He also works a second job at a referee instructor school to make ends meet.
In a state where the unemployment rate fell to a low of 3.6 percent in September, employers are competing for qualified workers, and job seekers can be more selective, said Michael Goodman, a professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
“It’s a sign of an increasingly competitive labor market where qualified workers are harder to find,” Goodman said. “To the extent that the job itself and the day-to-day conditions at work are not appealing, it makes it harder to attract workers.”
Finding workers who have a valid driver’s license has also been a key problem for the Postal Service. Powers said many people in the city rely on public transportation or don’t have access to a car. Uber has snatched up other employee prospects. A driver’s license is required because many routes don’t come with a delivery truck and carriers need a way to pick up mail and take it to their route, even if it will ultimately be delivered by foot.
Some carriers find themselves walking miles a day, a treat on a glowing Autumn day, but not so enticing in February. Carriers are also hauling more packages, slippery catalogs, or chunky periodicals to customers’ doorsteps, by foot, truck — and occasionally by three-wheeled dollies.
While that’s good for the industry, it can be tough on carriers. About 40 percent of new hires in Greater Boston quit within the first three months of the job, Powers said.
“That’s part of our challenge,” Powers said. “The job’s not for everybody. And not everybody has the capability and desire to do what needs to be done.”
Yet Postal Service bureaucracy may be another hiring obstacle. Local district offices don’t even have their own Facebook page, so they have trouble attracting younger workers through social media.
Officials said they have been holding meet-and-greet sessions at local post offices from Chelsea to Chestnut Hill and Weymouth to Wellesley to get word out. But it hasn’t been wildly successful in an era when many don’t bother to go the post office — preferring to buy their stamps online, if they buy them at all.
Postal carrier Richard Newayno said he’s been delivering letters and packages for 28 years, about 20 of those in the leafy Ashmont Hill section of Dorchester.
The 58-year-old from East Milton said the job has changed over the years, and hauling more packages and parcels can take a physical toll. But he said he plans to do the work as long as possible.
“I like the exercise, the people, the fresh air,” he said. “That’s what keeps me going.”