About 3,000 people streamed through a job fair in downtown St. Petersburg on Thursday, visual proof that Tampa Bay is still stuck in an employment crisis.
But interviews with a handful of employers and job seekers revealed an optimism in the new year that the tide has turned: More companies are hiring again or hiring more than they were a year ago.
Steven Alston is among those convinced the worst has passed.
After several visits to the bay area over the past four years, Alston, 49, sold his home in Raleigh, N.C., closed his consulting business and relocated here with his wife about five weeks ago.
"I thought this was a good time to test the job market down here," he said as he scanned some of the 50-plus booths inside The Coliseum. "What I'm finding is there appears to be a lot of opportunities."
Over the past year, Tampa Bay's unemployment rate has steadily receded, from a peak of 12.6 percent to 10.3 percent. That doesn't include thousands of exasperated workers who have stopped looking for work or can find only part-time work.
Nevertheless, it's a move in the right direction.
Casey Cochran, 26, of Safety Harbor was enthused to find at least three companies with IT job openings that suited him. "I've been working at Walmart the last four years and now I'm hoping to get a real job," he said, hoping his recent computer training pays off.
Among companies dangling job openings were a trio of hotels: the Loews Don CeSar Hotel, Sirata Beach Resort and Tradewinds Island Resorts.
"We're ramping up for the season starting in March," said Vivian Amadeo, director of human resources for the Don CeSar on St. Pete Beach. "Now is when we hire and start training so workers will be ready."
Paul Garcia, a recruiter for Raymond James Financial, said the St. Petersburg financial services firm has 140 open positions — from IT jobs to financial analysts to security guards. "With the new year, everybody has the benefit of playing with their budgets (so) we're doing a lot of hiring right now," he said.
Even some manufacturers were trolling for workers.
Arne Swanson, vice president and general manager of Prima Die Casting, said the Clearwater tool and die company was looking for a half-dozen entry-level workers. The 56-employee company tends to fluctuate with the economy, swinging from a pre-recession high of 130 employees to a low of 35 a couple of years ago.
This year, Swanson sees some auto-related orders picking up and government contracts falling off slightly. It will probably be a net positive, but not by much.
"It's a sense of some steps forward and some steps back," he said. "I'm cautiously optimistic."
The job fair was organized by the Tampa Bay Times.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or [email protected]