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Florida jobseekers reluctantly hit the road for work

Larry McCafferty, 59, has lived in Florida for five years. Finding work meant deciding how important it was to stay here.

KERI WIGINTON | Times

Larry McCafferty, 59, has lived in Florida for five years. Finding work meant deciding how important it was to stay here.

LAND O'LAKES — Larry McCafferty moved here five years ago from Ohio to take a human resources position at the Goodrich lighting company's offices in Oldsmar because it was a good opportunity and also because this is somewhere he wanted to live. He loves the weather, loves the water, loves the Rays. Perfect.

Until last spring.

In the year since Goodrich let him go, McCafferty, 59, has networked relentlessly, applied for jobs online and through recruiters, and every Tuesday evening he has gone to the iWork workshop at the Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz. First he was there seeking guidance and solace. Then he started to volunteer to pass along some of what he had learned.

Last month, finally, he got a job offer.

In Pittsburgh.

At iWork, every week, people like McCafferty come looking for answers. How to write a good resume. How to get people to actually read it. How to interview well. How to deal with extended unemployment. How to start over.

But one question they haven't discussed much has to do with the fact that the rest of the country's job market is improving faster than Florida's.

It's the relocation question.

How do you know when you've got to go?

He's the kind of move-down Florida wants.

McCafferty grew up in Butler, Pa., just north of Pittsburgh, served in the Marines and went to Princeton. And he's a worker. Worked in the steel mills before he finished college. Worked as a schoolteacher, teaching history, sociology and social studies in Pennsylvania, Indiana and New Jersey. Went into the human resources field because of the promise of a steady and dependable if not lavish lifestyle.

That's what brought him here.

When he arrived, he made sure to call his friends up north in the winter and tell them it was 82, sunny and gorgeous.

"They hated me," he said with a smile last week at his home.

He lives in a 2,000-square-foot single-story stucco house in a central Pasco subdivision called Suncoast Meadows that used to be home to a herd of cattle.

Very Florida.

He and his wife bought that house for $287,000. Its market value now is some $130,000 less than that.

Also very Florida.

What Florida has been over the past few years is fundamentally different from what Florida was over the past few decades.

For the longest time, people did nothing but come on down, reaching, in retrospect, an unsustainable peak in the early to middle parts of the 2000s. Florida in those years ranked first in the country in population growth. Now it ranks 45th. In 2008, for the first time since World War II, the number of people who left Florida was higher than the number of people who came to Florida. That was the same year fewer Americans moved, from anywhere to anywhere, than in any other year in the last half a century.

The horrific economy and the housing collapse made people hunker down, hoping for the best, but bracing for the worst.

McCafferty got a "decent but not great" severance package from the company for which he had worked for 13 years in Ohio and Oldsmar.

He went through "stages of grief," he said last week, stair-stepping though "anger, resentment and depression."

"The worst part," he said, "is feeling like you are worthless, like you never were any good, and that's why you can't get a job."

But iWork helped him get past that feeling. The weekly two-hour session combines scripture and prayer with advice and encouragement. Some tips: Don't just click-click-click on HotJobs.com and other Internet sites. Follow up with contacts. Always say thank you.

About halfway through the year, he shifted from pupil to coach, offering not only what he gleaned from his months at iWork but also from his career working in human resources.

All this while his own search continued.

"I was looking for any HR job at any level in the Tampa area," he said, "but it became clear it wasn't happening here."

A key step in his thought process: Where else?

"We pray that you make our path clear to us," iWork leader Jim Carow said before the group at the end of one recent session. "We pray that that light goes on."

The last year for McCafferty was cutbacks at home — no more eating out, no more membership at the gym — and little more than "nibbles" on the job front.

When it happened, though, it happened quickly.

He networked to such cold-calling depths that he dialed up a high school friend back in the Pittsburgh area. The high school friend owns a defense contracting company called Ibis Tek. The high school friend needed a new vice president of human resources.

"When someone with those kinds of credentials and that kind of experience comes along, it'll help us tremendously," said Harry Kramer, the company's chief financial officer. "You can't pass up a guy like that."

McCafferty had an offer, and a decision, too.

Stay or go?

"I share my perspective with them," local job counselor Pegotty Cooper said when asked what she tells clients faced with this choice. "I've lived all over the country. I've followed jobs."

Often, she said, it comes down to this: "A bird in hand is worth two in the bush."

Added Tampa job counselor Larry LaBelle: "The longer you've been out of work, as people start to run out of money, that's where you say, 'You might want to consider other areas around the country.' "

"But it's a tough one," he said. "You have to respect their choice."

Some history at iWork: One man got an offer in Omaha, Neb., and took it. Another man got an offer in Virginia Beach, Va., and didn't.

• • •

From the Sunshine State to the erstwhile Rust Belt?

Pittsburgh as a potential destination is an interesting case. In the early '80s, after the steel industry collapsed, its economy was in more of a shambles than Florida's is now. Since then, though, the city has shifted from steel, steel and steel to education, finance and health care. Urbanists, economists and social scientists point to the place as a great example of how a city, state or region can work through calamity and create a more balanced, more diverse economy. Florida, many of them believe, could learn something from Pittsburgh.

Last year, iWork had a man move to Pittsburgh for a job. So did LaBelle.

McCafferty wanted to stay but made his decision by looking mainly at two factors:

1. Family. He's from there. His mother, who's 80, still lives there, and two sisters, too.

2. Desperation. "I'd been out of work for a year," he said, "and it was the only offer I had."

So one day earlier this month he drove across the state and stood on the sand on Cocoa Beach and looked up with all the others doing the same and watched the shuttle launch into the sky and into space and out of view.

Very Florida.

He starts his new job in Pittsburgh on June 1.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

Florida jobseekers reluctantly hit the road for work 05/21/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 22, 2010 11:25pm]
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