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While Mr. Graham might have fallen into the role by chance, others approach the job as a student would a university degree.

About 20 minutes northwest of Denver, in Arvada, Colo., is the headquarters of Noerr Programs. The 30-year-old company supplies Santas to more than 300 malls and shopping centers across the country, including the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City, in Arlington, and St. Charles Towne Center, in Waldorf.

The program also hosts its own Santa University, a four-day training session in July that teaches wannabe St. Nicks how to walk, talk, pose and dress like Santa. Graduates also learn to become savvy with media questions and how to maneuver through online social networks.

“Kids today are very smart, very tech savvy,” said Noerr spokeswoman Ruth Rosenquist. “They can be very cynical. Part of our training is to discuss appropriate answers to tough questions.”

Ms. Rosenquist said roughly 250 Noerr Santas are in the field this year, a number that’s steadily increased over the years and which she credits to word of mouth in shopping center circles.

The program’s human resource department doesn’t keep numbers that could correlate between a Santa University class size and the economy, Ms. Rosenquist said, because the men who apply tend to fit a specific niche of career Santas.

“Maybe in other industries … there might be an influx, but not necessarily with us,” she said.

The program’s curriculum might be elite, but even Noerr understands the importance of the basics.

A natural beard “goes a long way,” Ms. Rosenquist said. The program has a main clientele younger than 10, she said, but the Santa students “continue to always focus on them, because they’re the ones that come for the magic and the experience.”