ST. PETERSBURG — Stephanie Weber wanted to better herself. So in early 2007 she quit her job waiting tables and enrolled in St. Petersburg College's radiology program. • Earlier this year she started looking for another job. She was astounded by how difficult the search was.
"It's been very hard," said Weber, 37, of St. Petersburg. "There's just nothing out there."
On a recent day, Weber decided to attend a Dunkin' Donuts job fair at the WorkNet Pinellas office downtown.
She hoped she'd score a baking job that let her work third shift.
Once inside, she wasn't so sure. People were there in droves.
It's a common occurrence these days at WorkNet's six offices across the county.
A growing jobless work force and companies with few positions are to blame.
Last month, the state's unemployment rate rose to 6.5 percent, the highest since 1995. Despite the demand for jobs, WorkNet reports less employer participation in job fairs.
Fairs normally draw about 20 employers, but this year that number dropped to 14, said Bill Griffiths, a spokesman for WorkNet.
Traffic in WorkNet's One-Stop centers this past August was 17,462 — a 30 percent increase over last year, said president and chief executive Ed Peachey.
WorkNet also has troubles of its own. This year WorkNet Pinellas has laid off seven people, including resource room staff that help job seekers with Internet searches, case managers and those who provide welfare transition, Peachey said. Since 2002, WorkNet has had to shave $6-million from its budget, which is now $10-million.
"We had some pretty high unemployment rates coming out of 9/11," Peachey said. "But we're now at a point where our unemployment rates are as high as they were in the '90s, and our funding has not kept up with that pace."
The smaller staff has meant a more do-it-yourself environment, especially at WorkNet's downtown location.
Inside the office at 624 First Ave. S, several computers line the wall where job seekers can search for work. The office used to offer unlimited access, but with more daily visitors that had to change.
"We used to average about 90 people a day," said Eric Green, a resource room specialist, pointing to a sign-in sheet. "Now it's more like 125 a day."
Now each visitor gets a two-hour limit, which some say is not enough.
"I can't afford Internet access at home," said Karen Kilpatrick, who has been unemployed for more than a year and visits the downtown site often. "When I'm applying for my unemployment benefits and looking for a job, it's just not enough time to really get things done."
Weber, a mother, beat the odds on the day she went to the Dunkin' Donuts job fair. She was hired as a baker.
But the day wasn't without a downside. While at the fair, her car was towed. "It was unbelievable," said Weber. "I was inside maybe 10 minutes."
Officials say parking problems are another sign of the times. Often there's not enough spaces on the street to accommodate WorkNet's increased visitors, so they park illegally.
Agency officials are considering leasing another parking lot to help with the problem.
Get information about WorkNet Pinellas services and job fairs at worknetpinellas.org. Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8828.