ST. PETERSBURG — During previous job fairs at the Coliseum, lines have snaked around the downtown complex on both sides with hundreds of eager, recession-hardened job seekers.
At 10 a.m. Monday, when the Coliseum doors opened for the latest job fair, fewer than 100 people were waiting.
"This is the shortest line I've ever, ever seen," said Linda Williams, a city employee helping with traffic flow who has worked the twice-a-year fair for five years.
With Tampa Bay's unemployment rate still a disturbingly high 11 percent, some job seekers "have probably just given up," she speculated.
While the unemployment rate has improved in recent months, there has been a simultaneous drop in the size of the labor force. Some of the 27,000 who have left Florida's labor pool the past two months are likely discouraged jobless who are taking a hiatus from their job searches.
What the early crowd lacked in numbers, however, it made up for in intensity.
Marcus Jones, a 29-year-old St. Petersburg resident laid off from his lawn care job a year ago, was open for practically any opportunity: construction, landscaping, call center, fast food, temp work.
"I've been trying. Just no luck at all," he said.
Jones acknowledged he hears talk about the economy improving.
"Not from my point of view," he said. "It's like it's getting worse and worse by the day."
In one sign of hope, numerous employers Monday said they had positions to fill. During job fairs at the peak of the recession, by contrast, it was commonplace to urge applicants to post their resumes online for future availability.
Disney needed reservations agents at its Tampa call center. Franklin Templeton Investments, enthused after hiring a dozen people from its last job fair, set up an interview station with hopes of finding 10 more recruits.
Al Feliciano, staffing speciality with Massey Services, said his pest control business was hiring for jobs in sales, irrigation and a manager-in-training program. Finding employees, however, has proved harder than he bargained for.
Feliciano said that may be in part because Massey pays a base salary plus commission and many job seekers figure — wrongly, he said — that they can't earn enough commission in this economy.
Perhaps the most popular booth was Horizon Bay Retirement Living, where passers-by were treated to free samples of seared pork tenderloin with papaya gastrique black bean salsa and acho chili vinaigrette.
Horizon, which manages a large portfolio of retirement communities across the United States, was seeking registered nurses and licensed practical nurses for its senior centers as well as staffers for its Tampa headquarters.
Employers and job seekers alike have complained about a mismatch between available jobs and the skills and background of job seekers.
Anthony Taylor said he would be happy just to get a call back.
"This is the third job fair I've been at. Last time I went to 45 booths and not one call back," said Taylor, who moved to Florida from New Jersey three years ago for a construction job that didn't pan out and has been on the job hunt ever since.
The daylong fair, which included free resume evaluations and seminars on resume writing and interviewing skills, was hosted by the St. Petersburg Times and tampabay.com. Traffic built up steadily Monday with attendance reaching about 3,000, event organizer Dave LaBell said. At the last Coliseum job fair in January, about 4,500 attended.