ST. PETERSBURG — The line stretched halfway across the room, fresh-faced college graduates rubbing shoulders with seasoned business people, straightening ties, teetering on high heels, checking resumes one last time.
A timer beeped, then another, then another. The line shuffled toward the row of tables against the wall.
They had just five minutes to make this count.
At times, Tuesday's job fair at the Coliseum in downtown St. Petersburg resembled a speed-dating event more than a job fair. But the stakes were much higher: Anyone who showed up with a resume and a smile got a five-minute interview with a representative from Community Bank, which has 17 branches in Florida and needs more employees as it plans to acquire seven more.
A good impression meant a ticket to another interview with a department manager, then the company's chairman and president, and finally, the owner.
A really good impression meant a job offer on the spot — a unique hiring tactic in one of the worst job markets in memory.
And so they came, from as close as Clearwater and as far away as Boston, fast-food workers and mid-level managers, single mothers and family men, all vying for about 25 open positions. The bank said annual salaries would range from $30,000 to $150,000.
Doors opened at noon. Within three hours more than 200 people had arrived. By the time the event ended at 8 p.m., 338 job-seekers had come by.
Sixteen left with jobs — ranging in salary from $25,000 to $100,000.
• • •
Sheila Lynch stowed an overnight bag underneath her chair in the Coliseum's ballroom as she waited to be called for the second round of interviews. She had flown from Boston for this chance.
Lynch, 48, lost her job at Eastern Bank after two branches merged in May.
"I said, 'If nothing else, I flew 1,100 miles to go to a five-minute interview,' " she said afterward, laughing. She had spent much of the afternoon chatting with others waiting in line, talking excitedly about her plans to relocate.
To do so, though, she'll need to have a job.
She made it to the second round of interviews. She wasn't offered a job on the spot. We'll call you, they said — maybe tonight, maybe in two weeks.
"It's a shame what's happening everywhere," Lynch said. "Look at us all, here at the cattle call."
• • •
Mark Murphy's mother called him Tuesday morning and told him to print his resume and head to the Coliseum. The 21-year-old, a Largo High graduate from Belleair, is taking a break from his studies at St. Petersburg College and working at a Wendy's.
Murphy harbors dreams of being a fantasy author — a far cry from burger flipper or even bank teller, the job he was applying for Tuesday. But his job at Wendy's means long hours, little pay and not much else.
"I'm just trying to find something better, you know?" he said.
The timer beeped. Murphy sat down in front of an interviewer in a bright green blazer.
What, she said, is your greatest strength?
"Talking to the public," Murphy said, smiling. "I love trying to make people feel good."
"I can't think of any," he said.
Then his five minutes was up.
"She said she would give me a call. Not might. Would. That's what I'm hanging on to," he said, heading for the door.
• • •
Bank owner Trevor Burgess, standing by the front doors, sported a badge reading "Simon Cowell" as a joke. He said while all the 25 positions might not get filled Tuesday, he wanted to hire the best applicants in the room.
The first hire came about half an hour in — Kai Sonnenschein, a 48-year-old father who works for a restaurant and catering company that's about to be sold.
Sonnenschein advanced through four rounds of interviews — all the way to the top.
Welcome aboard, they said, and handed him an offer form for a position as a client services manager.
"I'll be your man when you need to plan the company Christmas party," he said, beaming.
• • •
Christine Kirtley pulled her purse over her shoulder and walked back to the table where her best friend, Micheline Laberge, was waiting for her with her 6-month-old granddaughter. Kirtley smiled wearily. She has been unemployed since she lost her job as a personal banker at Wells Fargo last year.
On Tuesday, she waited almost two hours for a second-round interview.
We'll call you, they said. There might be an opening. For now, that's enough.
"I'm still alive," Kirtley said, pulling her car keys out of her bag. "I'm still hoping."
Aubrey Whelan can be reached at 727-893-8316 or email@example.com.