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Kohl's job fair bright spot of hope for hundreds

Taryn Roberts and Sharde Conguta, both 18, fill out reference information after their interviews at the Kohl’s job fair for the new store slated to open in October. The job fair, at Palace Grand in Spring Hill, will continue until Thursday.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Taryn Roberts and Sharde Conguta, both 18, fill out reference information after their interviews at the Kohl’s job fair for the new store slated to open in October. The job fair, at Palace Grand in Spring Hill, will continue until Thursday.

SPRING HILL — Like so many job seekers at the Kohl's job fair Monday, 38-year-old Leon Bell said he was willing to do almost anything to get a job.

Bell has five school-age children, plus two adult children in his native Chicago.

School begins on Monday, but he and his wife, Rhonda, still have not bought clothes, backpacks, notebooks or writing tools. Their two-bedroom home is in jeopardy of foreclosure, and both have been unemployed since July.

Hoping his experience as a truck driver and manager of fast food restaurants will help him find work, Bell tried to stay optimistic. "I'm positive on the outside; inside, I'm hurting,'' he said. "I can't show it. I've got to stay strong.''

Bell is one of nearly 500 people hoping to snag one of the 150 jobs that will become available when the 90,000-square-foot discount department store opens at the Suncoast Crossing shopping center in October, a Kohl's spokeswoman said Monday.

The turnout is typical of what the store has seen at such events around the state, she added.

Some applicants signed up for interviews in advance.

Others waited for more than two hours, moving up through six rows of chairs before leaving a dimly lit ballroom at the Palace Grand in groups of 12.

They entered a room upstairs, where each told a Kohl's representative why they are the right person for the company.

Outside, they spoke of their desperation as they search for a steady job in the midst of a sour economy that has hit Hernando and Pasco counties harder than most.

April Johnson, 33, of Brooksville said she and her husband have depended on family and friends to support their 9-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter. Both were debt collectors until they were laid off in April. Since then, Johnson says she has applied for more than 50 jobs.

"At the interviews, you get your hopes up,'' Johnson said. "It's just between you and someone else. I've heard that three times. It doesn't pay the bills.''

Last month, Hernando County had the highest unemployment rate in west central Florida at 7.5 percent, followed by Citrus at 7.2 percent, and Pasco at 6.8 percent. In April, Hernando County had the third-highest unemployment rate in the state at 6.6 percent.

Although the economy has taken a downturn for myriad reasons, the slumping home-building industry has had the strongest impact in the region.

In 2005, Hernando County issued 4,185 new home permits; through May this year, there have been 134.

Also, in May, Hernando County had the fourth-highest foreclosure rate in Florida at one in 154 households. The state average was one in 228.

A back injury along with a dearth of construction jobs has kept William Binder, 43, unemployed since March. For the first time, Binder, who lives with his parents, has begun using food stamps. Seeing no future in construction, Binder is studying to go back to school to study computers, although he has yet to choose a specialty.

"If I don't get the Pell Grant, then I'm going to be stuck,'' said Binder, who has his GED. "I've got to get into something that's going to get me a job for the rest of my life.''

At 22, Danica Velazquez, an undergraduate student in criminology at the University of South Florida, was one of the youngest people in the waiting room.

Velazquez of Spring Hill said she hoped to gain a part-time job in loss prevention, watching security cameras and informing security guards of possible thefts.

"It's just scary because I feel like I'm going to go through school and not land a job anywhere,'' said Velazquez, who will graduate in December. "I definitely want to stay in the criminology field, but I just have to get my foot in the door somewhere.''

by the numbers

500 The number of people attending Kohl's job fair.

150 The number of openings the people were applying for.

7.5% Hernando County's jobless rate in July.

7.2% Citrus County's jobless rate in July.

6.8% Pasco County's jobless rate in July.

Kohl's job fair bright spot of hope for hundreds 08/11/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 13, 2008 8:16pm]
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