Jobless professionals seek options at Tampa Bay job fair

TAMPA

What do you do if you're Carl Finch?

You're 51 years old. You've spent your entire career in the white-collar world, and you're not ready to move on no matter what the so-called Great Recession is dishing out.

"I still want to stay in a professional environment. That's what I've been accustomed to being in. It's what I do best," said Finch, who was laid off as a sales executive from Nortel a few months ago, right before the Canadian telecom giant filed for bankruptcy reorganization. "You've got to have job satisfaction, even in the down times."

Finch came looking for answers last week at what was billed as a different kind of job fair — one oriented toward professionals with degrees and at least a couple of years experience who have morphed into job seekers. Like Finch, many of the nearly 300 who showed up at the Professional Career Resource Expo at USF's Marshall Center were keen on getting back in the game. Or finding ways to reinvent themselves as entrepreneurs after decades of working for a paycheck.

Unlike typical job fairs, the main exhibit hall wasn't filled with prospective employers passing out business cards and hauling in resumes — unless you include the U.S. Army's booth. Rather, the focus was on career training and development.

With portfolios in hand, job candidates chatted with career coaches and resume writers. They gravitated to seminars bearing such topics as "Being a Boomer and Proud of It" and "Thinking for the New Economy." One popular seminar, "Putting Your Best Facebook Forward," offered tips to using Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networking sites in a job search.

Erin Glover, an event organizer with the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance, said her group could have opted to host a traditional job fair, but no one wanted a bunch of booths manned by some employers who weren't hiring and others offering entry-level jobs.

"That's not what these people need. … They really need new tools to compete in a new economy. A lot of people here haven't been out of work for five, 10 years or more," she said. "Filling out an online job application just doesn't get it done."

With unemployment in the Tampa Bay area just under 10 percent and the number of jobless on extended unemployment benefits at a record level, some professionals sought advice about striking out on their own.

In one room, Bobbi Gemma, a "master certified coach" for professional development, flashed charts showing some of the "Hot Biz Ideas for 2009." Like pet sitting, medical supplies, repair businesses, dietary consulting services and organics.

Gemma talked about making the leap from employee to entrepreneur.

Many attributes that people might associate with a successful small-business owner aren't that important, she said.

She downgraded qualities like patience and a desire for money or power. Even being well-organized isn't necessarily a good thing. "Being creative is messy," she said.

An hour later, Pat Deering, owner of FranNet of Greater Tampa Bay, talked about the merits of franchising — assuming one has saved or can borrow the average $75,000 to $125,000 it takes to get started.

One of the biggest obstacles, she said, is fear of failure. But that perception of risk could be misguided. Many assume that getting a paycheck is a lot more secure than running your own business. Until a recession strikes.

"Most of us are in this room because that job went away," Deering said, as a dozen or so in the audience nodded in agreement.

The longer you keep your franchise or business going, the better your odds of staying with it. In contrast, the average length of an employee on a job today is 3.8 years.

Finch, the former Nortel employee, certainly beat those odds. In the 29 years since he graduated from college, he's had just two longtime employers.

Losing his position at Nortel after 18 years hasn't embittered him to the corporate life. It's emboldened him to try again.

"Personally, I think it was great being with a company a long time. I'm a much more long-term person. I'm passionate about my customer," Finch said.

His advice to the next generation and his fellow resume peddlers is simply to strive beyond expectations wherever they go. "Any job is what you make of it. Don't do what's in the job description. Do what's right."

Jobless professionals seek options at Tampa Bay job fair 03/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 21, 2009 4:31am]

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