This time last year, Ashley Williams of Clearwater was getting ready to take her Florida real estate exam. She passed, and at age 20 launched a new career. Has she found real estate very competitive? "It's like sharks out there,'' she says. At a time when the number of homes for sale remains unusually low, the ranks of real estate agents vying for listings continues to swell. Williams was among the 32,954 first-time applicants who took the state exam in 2016, the most in 10 years. And including repeat test-takers, the number of people who passed — 27,926 — brought Florida's total of currently licensed agents to almost 250,000. More are on the way. The Bob Hogue School of Real Estate, one of Florida's largest, already has signed up 48 students for a class with a maximum of 50 starting this month in Tampa. Another class, in St. Petersburg, is expected to have about 45. Yet Hogue sees signs that interest is leveling off after a resurgence in the past few years. "The national employment rate is high so many people have a job and don't necessarily have to look for a new line of work right now,'' he said. "And I think there are some unsettled feelings across the nation about where things are going. People who typically come in to real estate want to see a good strong market ahead and when there is uncertainty in the economy, there is uncertainty in what real estate will be.'' At the 2005 peak of Florida's real estate boom, nearly 45,000 people passed the state's exam and got their sales associate licenses. The number plunged to 8,598 in 2008 after the market collapsed, but has been on an upward trajectory ever since. Today, the real estate business in a hot market like Tampa Bay can be lucrative — 10 agents in Pinellas County last year each sold more than $50 million worth of homes and notched hefty commissions. But for others, especially newcomers, it can be a slog. "It's definitely a hard business to crack,'' said Aaron Lager, who passed his test in July and was among the 1,814 agents who joined the professional association Greater Tampa Realtors last year. Lager, 33, said he decided to get his license after he lost his job with an electrical firm and needed to quickly find something to do. So far, he's had no closings — meaning no commissions — but recently joined a team of agents and expects to have better luck. In the meantime, he's living off savings. "I had to make sure I had some savings and it should be good for awhile,'' Lager said. "I should have some transactions before it runs out.'' On the other side of Tampa Bay, Williams decided to become an agent after a Realtor she met told her she would make a good one. But soon after Williams got her license a year ago, a colleague made an unwelcome comment. "She said this profession might not be for me, that I should go back to flipping burgers,'' recalled Williams, who had been working at McDonald's. Nonetheless, she persevered, writing letters and canvassing Historic Kenwood, Crescent Lake and other St. Petersburg neighborhoods. "I never thought I'd door-knock because it scared me but I probably knocked on 1,000 doors,'' Williams said. "Out of 1,000, I maybe met three rude people who didn't t want to talk, but I got a lot of response and (the prospect) of future business.'' So far, she has sold three houses, each for under $125,00. Her total income from commissions? $4,400. Last week she got a telemarketing job, although she holds down expenses by living with her mother and using her boyfriend's car to get around. Still, Williams is determine to make real estate a full-time job. She is listing a vacant lot and if someone buys that, the owner will let her try to sell three houses. The Realtor who disparaged her is now giving her leads. As for others entering the field, "this I would tell them,'' Williams said. "You will run into a lot of negativity and lot of rejection but on the other side of rejection is success. Just look at the good in every opportunity.'' Hogue, whose school Williams attended, finds that most students never make it in real estate after spending around $400 for classes and other costs to get a license. But he likes to think they can still get something positive out of the experience. "In this economy or any economy it seems to be the same sort of story — maybe 10 to 20 percent of people are going to do well and the others will find out that it was more difficult than they anticipated,'' he said. "But at least the value is that they always learn something about real estate, which will probably encourage them to own real estate rather than just be a tenant. For spending a total of $400 to get a license, they can probably save way more than that on their first purchase. It's an investment, in a way.'' Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.