TAMPA — On Saturday morning, not 24 hours after the state announced a record-high unemployment rate, business students from the University of South Florida stood in the lobby of the sleek Regions building downtown, ready to work on skills to land jobs that might not exist.
Alan Alford asked his wife to get in the elevator with him for one last practice run before USF's second annual elevator pitch competition.
The 34-year-old lives in Valrico, works full-time selling car insurance for Geico in Lakeland and is set to finish school this summer. Stocky, confident and dressed in a three-piece suit with a lavender shirt, he said he wants to work for Oracle and doesn't drink coffee because coffee stains your teeth.
"I'm putting pressure on myself," he said, "to win this."
The "elevator pitch" is a corporate catchphrase for selling yourself or your product in the time it takes to ride to the top of a skyscraper. USF's competition is part of the curriculum. It also ends up mimicking a down market's Darwinian whittling of prospects — survival of the slickest and most prepared.
Here, it's 37 floors up, 37 floors down: Ready, set, self-promote.
The competition started. The elevator door opened. In walked Justin Fries, 20, a finance major from Sarasota. He began his pitch to the real-life recruiter:
"The product you see in front of you …"
• • •
For these students, the whittling started before they got to the Regions marble lobby: 50 or so signed up for a mandatory Saturday morning workshop, some of them failed to show for the preliminaries last week, and 20 made the cut for the finals.
One undergraduate, one graduate winner — $1,000 each.
At the workshop, they learned things like how to shake a hand (firm, but don't wrestle), how to "transfer enthusiasm" (your eyes and face, not your words), and how to practice it enough for it to not seem practiced at all.
Also, don't make your last line a yes-or-no question, because the answer might be no.
They got a handout on what to include. Name, experience, goals. Quick! I can handle such and such, I'm especially good at this or that, and end with: I would like ...
A job? An interview? A chance?
At the preliminaries, there were baskets of breath mints, bottles of hand sanitizer and egg timers dinging. The students stood at high-top tables and made their pitches, like speed dating, only with monologues instead of dialogues.
They had on loafers with tassels and power-suit pumps, but also ties tied too short, slacks sitting too low and Oakleys on Croakies hanging from their necks — unfinished, many of them, on their way but not quite ready for a world that also isn't quite ready for them.
Job offers to graduates will drop an estimated 7 percent this year, says the National Association of Colleges and Employers, an improvement from last year — when the figure was 21 percent. More than a third of the millennial generation, ages 18 to 29, is unemployed or out of the workforce, according to the Pew Research Center.
"You've got a 21-year-old coming out competing against 35-year-olds," said Bob Forsythe, the dean of USF's business school.
Fries arrived for the preliminaries. A graduate assistant asked him how he was doing.
"A little nervous," he said.
That's natural, the assistant said. "It's good," she told Fries, "to be humbled every once in a while, to realize we aren't the rulers of the universe."
• • •
At the finals Saturday, some students were breathless, motormouth, unblinking. Others were sweaty-handed, tentative, halting. One said he was a Ph.D — passionate, hardworking, determined. Another nervously rubbed the hem of his coat. A grad student presented the recruiter a Slinky and stretched it out — a preview, he said, of the long relationship they might be able to enjoy.
One student started: "It is my profound pleasure to meet you … ." But he started too early.
He tried a second time: "It is my profound pleasure to meet you … ." The elevator didn't move.
The recruiter fiddled with the buttons. The student shook his head, flustered: "It is my profound pleasure to meet you … ."
Alford, the coffee-avoiding insurance salesman, told the recruiter he was like the Muhammad Ali of sales, and pantomimed an uppercut to the jaw.
"If you had one shot, one opportunity to seize everything you've ever wanted, would you capture it, or just let it slip?"
He asked: "Why don't we seize this opportunity together?"
The recruiters weren't there to schedule a lunch. They mostly nodded and made marks on their clipboards.
David Beardsley, a 21-year-old junior from Tampa who motivated himself by listening to Lil Wayne, had a straightforward, affable style. The Wharton High School alum said he was an Eagle Scout, a leader and a hard worker at the Carrollwood Macaroni Grill. He said he was on track to get an honors degree in economics.
He seemed practiced, but not too mechanical.
"What do you say?" he said.
He shook the recruiters hand. The door opened back up.
Fries, the 20-year-old finance major, had a polished pitch, but also more rehearsed.
"Would you be willing to set up an interview to discuss the skill, education, intellect and intensity of the product just presented?" he said at the end.
After all the elevator runs, two times a piece for the 20 competitors, eight finalists were announced.
No David Beardsley.
The finalists went upstairs, where they all made one final pitch to seven recruiters seated in high-backed chairs around a long cherry wood table, Apprentice-style. Fries won. So did the MBA candidate with the Slinky.
The recruiters loved the Slinky.
"It's disappointing," Alford said downstairs.
Outside on the sidewalk, Fries said that this was going to boost his confidence and that he wants to work doing managerial finance. But he's glad, he added, that he's not graduating this spring.
"I've even heard business people tell us: 'Stay in college. It's bad out there.' "
Michael Kruse can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8751.