ST. PETERSBURG — They were young and old. Some wore slick career suits and ties. Others sported baseball caps and jeans.
There were 3,000 of them, and they all wanted one thing: a job.
The number of job seekers dwarfed the 30 potential employers during Wednesday's Tampa Bay Job Fair at the Coliseum. Within minutes of the 10 a.m. opening, the parking lot was packed and the ballroom crammed with people trying to find work.
The scene depicted the desperate times. Unemployment is way up. Hiring is way down. Florida's unemployment rate climbed to 7.3 percent in November. Tampa Bay's jobless rate is even higher, at 7.8 percent.
Attendance at the job fair was only slightly higher than average, but there were fewer employers than previous fairs.
Typically, the fair has about 90 to 100 employer booths, said Dave LaBell, a promotions and event manager for the St. Petersburg Times, which sponsored the fair. Wednesday's had 35, and some of those weren't actual employers, but businesses offering certification classes or job finding assistance.
"There's not as many employers hiring, so this is a different job fair for us," LaBell said. "We expected a strong turnout (of job seekers), given the state of the economy."
Some were discouraged before they even began the day's job hunt.
"It's very frustrating," said Marie Stradell, 37, who quit a job as a waitress in New Port Richey because of too few diners. "And it's scary."
James "Biscuit" Sellers, a 40-year-old barber who did warehouse and electrician work before losing his last job two months ago, got to the Coliseum 31/2 hours before doors opened. He's been making rounds at local warehouses and distribution centers.
"Now hiring" signs are scarce. More common, he said, are signs that say "Not accepting applications at this time."
He thought he'd have better luck Wednesday. He doesn't have a computer and had never made a resume, but he got help putting one together before the fair.
Apparently, others needed that kind of assistance as well. The line for resume help, offered by the Suncoast Human Resource Management Association, stretched about 40 people deep at one point.
People sat on steps and cleared spots on the floor to fill out applications and questionnaires.
Employers couldn't hand out their materials fast enough.
Centerplate, a concessionaire looking for help during Tampa Bay Rays games, handed out 400 applications in 90 minutes. The company is hiring only for seasonal and part-time work, but its table was one of the day's most popular.
"I have to say it was kind of sad," human resources manager Vicki Radu said of the crowd. "We're seeing people with professional degrees willing to do anything."
Shawn Ferguson, an assistant manager at Rent King, said his booth was immediately swamped. The Pinellas Park company has about 10 open positions, but Ferguson said it was tough to screen applicants with so many people waiting in line.
"It was just 'hello, hello, hello,' all morning," he said. "I didn't get a chance to get to know anyone."
The job applicants seemed just as stressed, as many were looking for immediate work. Most skipped the booths offering job-hunting services or classes and went straight for companies with actual positions.
"That's the first thing people asked me," Ferguson said. " 'Are you a real job?' "
Emily Nipps can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8452.