The stubbornly slow economy means retailers could shorten their list of 2011 holiday hires from last year, according to a new report out Monday by employment pros Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

In a missive entitled “Slowing Recovery Threatens Holiday Hiring,” Challenger forecasts that seasonal job gains in the retail sector will be the same or lower than a year ago when employment grew by 627,600 jobs from October through December.

They admit that last year’s holiday hiring proved  “better than expected” with a (stunning) 27 percent leap from the dismal recession-burdened retail season of 2008. That year proved a “the worst showing since 1982.”

Fast forward to next month, and officials fear that consumers may pull back again given the recent weak economic news.

• Last week the U.S. Commerce Department reported that August retail sales failed to change from July and went further in downgrading July’s previous report. 

• Separately, the International Council of Shopping Centers forecast a 3.5 percent growth in retail sales for November and December. That’s below the 4.4 percent seen in 2010.

“The retail environment has improved significantly since 2008, when the recession was at its worst. However, retailers are seeing several signs that consumer spending is dipping just as they are beginning to make decisions about how many workers to add for the upcoming holidays. This does not bode well for job seekers,” said CEO John Challenger in a statement. “It would be surprising if holiday hiring exceeded last year’s level.”

He added that holiday employment gains will  “definitely” not reach pre-recession levels, when stores hired an average 720,000 seasonal hires from October to December.

In Minnesota, the home of behemoths Best Buy and Target, state officials noted last week that the Trade, Transportation & Utilities sector that includes retail gained 12,400 jobs between August 2010 and August 2011. The sector gained 4,100 jobs in August alone.

However, Steve Hine, director of Minnesota's Labor Market Information Office, credited those job gains to spikes in the wholesale sector, not retail.

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