The numbers looked stacked against Yvette Dube: more than 3,000 job seekers preregistered for 400 job openings and hundreds more walk-ins expected.
So, Dube tried to shift the odds in her favor.
She showed up at the Florida State Fairgrounds at 2:30 a.m. Monday, more than six hours before the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino was slated to kick off its mega-job fair. She was all alone at first, beating the start of the line by about an hour. "Just with the stars," she said.
Dube's determination paid off with a job offer as a floor tender, helping to keep up the appearance inside the casino.
After more than six months on a job search, Dube said she feels things are looking up. And not just for her.
"I heard there's also 700 (call center) jobs coming up in Lakeland, so I do believe the economy is getting better," said Dube, a Lutz resident.
Florida's unemployment rate has fallen from its Great Recession peak. But at 9.4 percent, unemployment is still high enough to draw thousands for a chance at a job, many of them paying roughly equivalent to typical service jobs at restaurants and hotels.
Witness the scene inside the cavernous special events center inside the Florida State Fairgrounds.
Some 750 people sat in fold-out chairs and a hundred more milled about, all patiently waiting for their number to come up.
"Now calling Future Rock Stars 548, 549 and 546," the announcer's voice boomed over the din of rock music.
Tied to its $75 million expansion, the Hard Rock wants to add more than 400 jobs by June: chefs, cooks, servers, bartenders, cashiers, security, Player's Club reps and technicians.
"I don't think there's a department in the building that's not hiring folks," said Seminole Hard Rock president John Fontana.
The ramp-up has been teased for months, prompting the huge preregistration numbers.
Among the early birds: James McMillion, 21, of Tampa, who drives by the Hard Rock every day and applied in February, the same day he first noticed the fair being advertised.
McMillion hoped to get picked for a restaurant job, meshing with his current studies in the culinary program at Hillsborough Community College.
At 6 foot 4, McMillion joked that he might have a shot as a security guard, too. "I can stand there and look threatening," he said, glancing at security around the event.
Either way, he wasn't about to be fussy. "Just something that pays, preferably," he laughed.
Toni Jackson, No. 740 in line, was seeking a job as a cook. Jackson, 43, said she has been in cooking for 23 years, currently with the Hillsborough County school system.
"I love the schools; I love the kids. But there are no hours and no pay,'' she said. "I'm determined I will walk out with a job. I'm Italian and I'm determined. Plus, I'm small, and my mother always says dynamite comes in small packages. So there you go.''
The event was supposed to run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but a line started forming behind Dube by 3:30 a.m., so Hard Rock opened the doors a couple of hours early. By 10:30 a.m., the day's max-out of 1,000 people had come through, and Hard Rock officials said they wouldn't be able to schedule any more interviews. Job prospects still arriving during the day were assigned blocks of time to return later in the week.
Among the fortunate were Philmore Navarrete, 23, and his sister Tamara, 22.
The duo, who arrived a little after 7 a.m., had to wait a few hours for their numbers to be called. But then they progressed through the interview process in less than an hour — meeting with a hiring manager; going through a background check and drug testing required for everyone who gets a gaming license; and then receiving confirmation they had been hired pending final results of the screening.
Before 11 a.m., the siblings had reached the final stage: wardrobe. Philmore was being fitted for his new job as a cashier, and Tamara as a restaurant hostess.
By day's end, the casino was nearly half done, with 185 job offers on the table.
The latest hires will boost the Seminole Hard Rock's workforce past 3,500. The expansion, which will make it one of the 10 largest casinos in the country, will stretch the casino floor to 220,000 square feet. That extra space will provide room for 750 more slot machines for a total of about 5,000.
The Hard Rock will operate 105 gaming tables, a dozen more than it does now, along with 1,359 more parking spaces to handle the crowds.
But they're not done yet.
Fontana, the casino president, sees even grander days ahead.
The casino's master plan, he says, calls eventually for yet another expansion. If that goes forward, it would make the next job fair even bigger.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or [email protected]