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Thousands jam job fair in downtown St. Pete

An estimated 4,500 job seekers on Wednesday packed the Coliseum, where about 50 employers were hiring.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

An estimated 4,500 job seekers on Wednesday packed the Coliseum, where about 50 employers were hiring.

An overflow crowd of thousands of job seekers streamed through the aisles of the Coliseum in downtown St. Petersburg.

Behind the booths at Wednesday's job and career fair were employers like Community Health Solutions, Wilger Liaison Co. and PODS saying they were eager to hire.

Matching them up? That was the rub.

Though Tampa Bay's unemployment rate is among the highest in the state at 12.6 percent, some employers say it's still a challenge finding suitable people for open positions.

Wilger Liaison, which tests products for safety, was trying to hire four engineers and eight electrical lab technicians. But company founder and chief executive Gerard M. Plank Jr. said finding the right fit hasn't been easy, so he turned to the job fair after other advertising was unsuccessful.

Laura Rice, a recruiter with Community Health Solutions of America, echoed that her company has been highly selective in vetting potential hires, hoping to find employees who will last. The managed care company has 22 positions to fill, everything from a claims manager to triage nurse.

"We go through a rather rigorous hiring process," Rice said, with applicants screened for behavioral tendencies and taking a Wonderlic test to gauge problem-solving skills.

Exasperation went both ways.

Christine Donar, 19, said she's been unable to find even part-time work since graduating from Gibbs High School in June. As she filled out an application for TradeWinds Island Resorts, she indicated that one of the problems is companies prefer someone with experience.

Jonelle DeBlanc, who was laid off in October as office manager of a Biloxi area salon and spa, drove from Mississippi to St. Petersburg in her job quest. With a college degree and a long resume filled with experience in entertainment and management, she was hoping for a little more once she arrived.

"I can't believe I drove 10 hours for this. Highly disappointed," DeBlanc said. "It's either you need to have a master's or be willing to work for like $5 an hour or go to school. There's nothing for people in the middle."

One of the companies touting the most openings was PODS, the Clearwater-based moving and portable storage company.

Elizabeth Stockman, PODS senior recruiter, said the company is ramping up to hire up to 250 more call center workers and train them in time for the busy season that begins in June. But there was no guarantee of long-term employment. Post-busy season, PODS historically ramps down again.

Wednesday's surprisingly large turnout forced operators to temporarily close parking lots adjacent to the Coliseum midmorning, making available parking spots a premium.

Among the throng: Harold Tourjee III of Fort Pierce, who graduated with a degree in information technology in December. He wants to relocate to the bay area to be near his fiancee. "It's difficult out there," Tourjee said while standing in line at Lockheed Martin's booth. "There's tons of people looking for jobs and just not that many available."

About 50 companies and colleges were represented.

Job fair organizers, which include the St. Petersburg Times, estimated the turnout to be at least 4,500, or up to 1,000 more people than the last job fair at the Coliseum in the fall.

Thousands jam job fair in downtown St. Pete 01/12/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 12, 2011 9:41pm]
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