Tampa Bay's economy isn't without its post-recession blues, from a dearth of high-paying jobs to a glut of long-term jobless, particularly among older workers.
But a walk through Tuesday's job fair in downtown St. Petersburg underscored that the worst of the recession is long gone.
Many of the nearly 50 companies scattered in booths throughout the Coliseum had jobs to fill: insurance companies, restaurants, car dealers, health care firms and retailers.
A dozen red-shirted recruiters from Advance Auto Parts patrolled near their booth under a Now Hiring! sign.
Ralph Gonzalez, a regional vice president for the auto parts company, said he'd like to hire more than 200 workers, adding two to three apiece at 150 stores stretching from Brooksville to Fort Myers. The work is part-time, but could morph into full-time and long-term after several months, he said, comparing it to apprenticeships.
Gonzalez' team was scouting for hires last year as well, but the effort this season is much more concentrated and urgent. "The economy is getting better; demand is getting better," he said. "We need them now."
Nearby, hotels like Loews Don CeSar, Sirata Beach Resort and Tradewinds Resort were likewise beefing up for the spring season.
Susan Baxter, Tradewinds' employment coordinator, said the St. Petersburg resort has grown to 830 full-time employees, adding more than 100 this past year. She aims to hire another 30 workers this season, anticipating most of them will remain past the peak season if the tourism industry keeps its hot streak going as expected.
"I was surprised to see this many opportunities," said LaDarion Speights, 22, a former part-time dance instructor trying to find full-time work. "There's a lot of places hiring that I didn't know about."
Yet, not all were so optimistic.
Jesse Farris, 29, said he may be able to get some hours at a call center, which he's done before. But he's been trying for nearly a year to find another job in information technology, where he has both passion and experience.
The problem he runs into, Farris said, is that many companies are reluctant to add IT workers, preferring to stay bare-boned or outsource to India. And if they do hire, other displaced workers with a decade more experience than him are available.
"The economy may be getting better, but IT is a special place starting to resemble a circle in hell," he said.
As of November, Tampa Bay's unemployment rate had fallen to 6.2 percent, down from its jaw-dropping peak of 12.5 percent in January 2010. But it also suffers from the same problem as the rest of the country: a smaller labor force. The number of people with a job or looking for one — known as the labor force participation rate — has dropped due to a combination of aging Baby Boomers entering retirement and discouraged job seekers who have given up looking for work, so they are no longer counted among the jobless.
Tuesday's turnout was more moderate than years past, with barely 100 waiting for the doors to open at 10 a.m. compared to lines several hundred strong stretching around both sides of the Coliseum during previous fairs.
Whether that was due to the spitting rain, an improved economy or discouraged job seekers who didn't show was a matter of opinion.
Broderick Keys, 38, of St. Petersburg is in the camp of believers that the job market is getting better.
But Keys said part of the onus is on job hunters to reinvent themselves. For instance, he left behind his project management experience to shift into financial services, sensing more opportunities.
"Reinventing … That's what we have to do," he said, scanning the grand hall. "This is the playground here where everyone is doing that."
Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8242.