Believe it. This is no time to be out of work. • You can be smart, well-liked, highly trained and good looking, and still you find yourself in a line on a sidewalk. • The ultimate suburban cattle call: job fair for the mall. • With holidays approaching and the economy in a tailspin, we interviewed 10 job seekers hoping to be hired at the Shops at Wiregrass mall in Wesley Chapel. • They came from as far as Brandon and Spring Hill seeking jobs that, in some cases, pay less than $8 an hour. Gas that day cost $3.65 for regular. Do the math. • Some were still employed, and a few were cryptic about their work experience. Most had been out of work for months. • By 10 a.m., 225 people had entered the Holiday Inn Express, which hosted the job fair. Dozens more were lined up outside. • And it was hot.
Danielle Burton scurried, as fast as one can in dress shoes, from the Muvico lot to the hotel, which had run out of parking.
"I have five years' management experience,'' she said as a line of applicants came into view. "I've been here four months, and I've been searching for work since.''
At 26, she's a single mother of a 1-year-old son in Spring Hill. Her resume lists a high school diploma, three references and several jobs at Old Navy in New York.
The search is wearing, she said. "You get there and there are 50, 40 people for one job.''
Lisa Norris of Land O'Lakes described herself as "one of those people you read about in the newspaper." Laid off at 50, she's still jobless at 51.
"I'm looking for anything,'' she said. Employers don't seem to believe her.
She comes from a career in medical sales and has only herself to support. She made good money and managed it wisely. But it has been a year, and she wonders whether she'll have to dip into her savings.
"Health insurance is killing me,'' she said. Just staying covered under her former employer's health plan costs $528 a month.
"I spend most of my time defending the money I used to make,'' she said.
Decline is not just in construction jobs
The numbers aren't encouraging. Even before the banking crisis and stock market crash, the state reported an August unemployment rate of 6.5 percent. The last time it was that high was January 1995.
Analysts blame a loss of construction jobs, which dropped 13 percent from one year to the next.
Retail employment was also down, as job applicant Jeffrey Richards can attest. At 24, Richards would like to move out of his parents' Wesley Chapel home, "but it's kind of hard without a job.''
The son of a college professor, Richards did office work for his dad, delivered pizza and ran an eBay business.
He'll settle for seasonal work, he said, because "it's pretty hard to find a full-time job in general."
2,000 applicants run the gamut
More than 30 employers attended the job fair, which was expected to attract at least 1,000 applicants.
It got more than twice that many.
"We have some real professionals in here, not just low-end jobs,'' said Kenneth Russ of the nonprofit Career Central agency. "People have been laid off in all kinds of jobs. They run the whole spectrum. People need work.''
Wages ranged from under $8 at Bath & Body Works to $10 and up at Dillard's. Applicants sat shoulder to shoulder in the hall, filling out application forms. Some found tables outside.
Jennifer Bonman and Vicky Caicedo, both 18, are Wharton High School graduates.
Bonman goes to Hillsborough Community College and has been looking for part-time work since June, she said. Employers tell her they are overstaffed.
"They say they are taking applications but not hiring at the moment,'' she said.
Caicedo, of Tampa, plans to enroll in a Paul Mitchell academy in January. Like Bonman, she's not having much luck in her job search. "Companies are all either fully staffed or not hiring.''
They see their situation as short term. Bonman plans to study sports medicine and physical therapy. Caicedo will be a beautician.
"Once you have a degree, it's easier,'' Bonman said.
The St. Petersburg Times plans to follow up with these applicants in the coming months. Who will find work at the mall? Who will find a job elsewhere? Who will be earning good money when the holidays roll around?
Looking high and low since February
Antonio Carcano, 19, lives in Brandon. He graduated from Riverview High in 2006.
"I've been looking for a job since February,'' he said. "Everyone in my local area is not hiring. I even tried restaurants. I came all the way out here just to look for a job."
Carcano was a server at Steak 'n Shake, he said, and left for a telemarketing position at a small firm on N Florida Avenue in Tampa. But the money was barely enough to cover the gas.
He performs in a dance team that wins cash prizes in competitions. But "the money we raise pays for bus trips and uniforms,'' he said.
He started college, hoping to become an architect, but fell off track.
"Now I have to pay my financial aid,'' he said. Until then, he can't go back to school.
Employment specialist Gloria Houston knows about the job market in eastern Hillsborough County. As a center manager for Tampa Bay WorkForce, she has seen visits double in Plant City since last year and increase by 35 percent in Brandon.
"We have an office full of people applying for $8-an-hour jobs,'' she said. With 25 years of experience in the field, "I have never seen it like this. Some of these people have bachelor's degrees.''
She described one new Brandon employer, an upholstery company, that listed packer jobs at $8.50 to $10. Within a week, 105 people had applied.
"People are very discouraged,'' she said. "All you hear everybody saying is maybe things will be different after the election.''
Pep talks and prayer buoy one seeker
It wasn't easy for Tinamarie Gaskin, 41, to line up on the sidewalk in Tampa Palms.
"I've been working in schools,'' said Gaskin, of Wesley Chapel. Specifically, Zephyrhills High School, Weightman Middle School and Saint Leo University, which she said laid her off.
The Saint Leo job helped Gaskin educate her daughter, who is on her way to becoming a nurse practitioner.
Now it's Mom's turn.
"You give yourself a pep talk,'' she said. "You know, everything is okay. And I just pray, really, a lot of the time."
It irks her that employers take her application and don't call back. Isn't that common courtesy?
Her husband has worked for the same company for 18 years. But "unfortunately, we need two incomes.''
Ahead of her in line was Jeff Kotova, also 41 and trying to plan ahead for his family.
Kotova, a father of two, already works in retail. He's interested in management training opportunities.
"I want something full time, definitely,'' he said.
Earnest young man, upbeat young woman
It took 40 minutes for Eamonn Molloy to drive to New Tampa from his home in Holiday.
"I've been a supervisor and a team leader in retail,'' said Molloy, 24. "Since February I've been looking. … I thought it would be a lot easier than it is here, with 200 people in front of you.''
He's engaged, has no children yet and just bought a house.
Angela Brown, 18, seemed cheerful as she sat outside filling out forms with others her age. If a job fair could have a party table, this was it.
"I have a job, but would like something that's going to last long term (but) not forever,'' she said.
She'll go back to school eventually, she said. She's testing the waters of the retail economy, slowed by neither the day's heat nor the competition.
"I'll be here all day.''
Marlene Sokol can be reached at email@example.com or 269-5307.