TAMPA — Whether signs at their booths were in English or Spanish, many of the nearly 100 companies attending a West Tampa job fair had a message welcome in any language: now hiring.
State Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, who organized the daylong event targeting unemployed Hispanics and African-Americans in her district, said companies were asked to attend only if they were actively hiring.
Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase were both adding workers. So were Progress Energy, Tampa General Hospital and USAA.
Macy's, meanwhile, is hiring close to 400 in its Clearwater call center this upcoming holiday season to handle inbound and outbound calls. Ramon Gonzalez, a Macy's rep at the fair, said duties range from customer service to credit. Depending on employee performance, the hires may stay on past the season, Gonzalez said. They could, for example, move into another call center role where activity remains high after the holidays, like collections.
Hilton human resources rep Wayne Laney stood next to the hotel chain's booth where a sign in Spanish flashed the advantage of working at home. Hilton aims to hire up to 50 people to handle calls and reservations in November. Up to 70 percent of the staffers work out of their homes, with part-timers given great latitude in setting their own schedules, Laney said.
Some job seekers said they were disappointed with the job fair staple of universities seeking tuition dollars and commission-oriented sales jobs that required extensive training and up-front expenses to get in the door.
Joseph Michael Ramos, who worked for years as a chef at various area restaurants, has been on a quest for a new job for two years.
He'd like to continue cooking but has been frustrated that restaurants continue to cut back on hours and staffing levels. "It's still slow," he said. "No one is going out that much to spend their money."
Ramos, who speaks Spanish, English and Italian, wonders if he'll have an advantage getting hired at a call center — perhaps at Hilton. If he can hold out until he's hired.
"I actually think it's getting harder out there than it was before," he said. "We just have to keep our heads up and walk forward and hope America gets back on her feet."
Hundreds of unemployed hopefuls were already waiting outside of Higgins Hall at St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Tampa before the fair began at 10 a.m. By day's end, more than 1,700 had trickled through, organizers estimated.
Cruz said the job fair, which was far larger than a similar one she held a year ago, was the outgrowth of talking with constituents.
" 'We don't need no stinking town halls,' they told me. 'We need jobs,' " Cruz said.
Her district includes all or part of neighborhoods such as Seminole Heights, West Tampa, Egypt Lake and Town 'N Country.
"I represent a largely Hispanic district, and since the inception of this job fair that focus has not been lost," Cruz said.
The current national unemployment rate is 9.1 percent, but it's 11.3 percent among Latinos. Florida's unemployment rate is 10.6 percent but, like the national average, runs higher among Hispanics. For Hispanic youths, the unemployment rate is three times the national average.
For some, however, the core problem is not a racial or ethnic one, but the crippled economy itself.
"I think it's just bad for everyone," said job seeker Chantal Sharpe, 24, of Tampa. "You could be purple, and I think it's just as bad."