It used to be that when clients came to Sandra Nicoll in a crisis — after they had been fired, say, or divorced by a bread-winning spouse — she could offer both comfort and hope.
"I'd say, 'Calm down. Don't worry. I'll find you some- thing,' " said Nicoll, an employment counselor for disabled workers contracted by the state.
And, almost always, she did — even if it was a job on a nighttime cleaning crew or wiping down tables in a fast-food restaurant.
But the builders and store owners who were once happy to help her clients are now hurting themselves, she said, and the few openings they have are filled by skilled workers who are desperate for any job. National chain stores can afford to be so choosy, she said, and they've started disqualifying applicants for deficiencies as minor as bad credit scores.
"Now, when I do an interview with (a new client), the first thing I have to do is apologize,'' Nicoll said Friday at the Career Central employment service in Spring Hill.
"I say, 'I'm sorry, the economy is atrocious.' "
Of course, that's not really news, given all that we've heard about the mortgage crisis and the chaos on Wall Street. As for the local economy, it's been more than a week since we learned that Hernando's unemployment rate climbed to 9 percent in August, up from 6.1 percent the year before.
Still, I wasn't quite prepared for what I found when I arrived at Career Central. It has served more than 3,000 clients in each of that past two months, and on Friday, dozens of job-seekers were huddled there in front of computer screens.
I had been hoping, along with everyone else, that this financial crisis was still mostly a housing crisis, that all these bad mortgages are at least backed by something real — houses that will regain value once they are bought up by people who can afford them and plan to live in them.
The other possibility, of course, is that the crisis is spreading to every sector of the economy. Sadly, that seems to be the way things are headed, based on what I saw Friday.
David Hamilton, a Career Central job counselor, said he is starting to see more job losses in businesses — trucking and custodial companies, for example — with no direct connection to the housing industry. Indications of a general economic slowdown are more than just frightening. It means people are suffering from a problem they had no part in causing.
It's one thing to see speculators get burned, quite another for it to happen to Joseph Votta, 43, a veteran car salesman who says he has been a regular at Career Central since losing his last job in June, having sent out hundreds of job applications.
His savings are nearly gone, he said. And though he is close to earning an online bachelor's degree in marketing, he has been turned down for jobs he once would have never considered, including delivering furniture and stocking shelves.
"As things start to get desperate, you'll apply for just about anything,'' he said.
Shirley Derby, 49, recently moved to Florida from Iowa after losing a well-paid job as a monitor at a call center in Iowa. Pointing to her computer screen, she showed me that she had just clicked on a house-cleaning job.
"That's what I'm down to,'' she said.