This is where the unemployment statistics come every day. People in numbers no one has ever seen before. Some of them show up a day or two after they lost their job. Some risk their benefits and wait months to finally come in. And even then, they linger in the parking lot, working up the courage. • But sooner or later, they walk in the door. They have to.
WorkNet Pinellas is a federally funded one-stop agency that allows anyone free use of computers to look for jobs, and to file for unemployment benefits or food stamps, or to hone resume or interview skills. It's a busy place these days.
Just off 34th Street S, across from Gibbs High School, WorkNet's South County location may be the busiest office of any kind in the area. There's usually a wait to use the dozens of computers, and classes on resume writing or interview techniques are often full. Someone in shorts and a Rays T-shirt could easily be sitting next to someone in a suit. And nobody seems to mind.
"We get everyone from entry level to top professionals,'' said Stephanie Byard, the office's lead resource specialist. "You can see right here what they're talking about on the news. Even McDonald's can afford to be choosy now.''
What everyone has in common is that they had to leave their homes, drive or find a ride, come in and start over. They're coming in record numbers because the jobless rate in the Tampa Bay area is 8.3 percent, the worst major metro area in the state, according to the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation.
In the middle of a row of computers is Frank Ledbetter. He's 46, married, and had a good job as a project manager for a construction company. Four days before Christmas, his boss told him he was sorry. It wasn't his fault. He was a fine manager. But he had to let him go.
So every day since Jan. 5, Ledbetter has been coming here. Looking for work is his new job.
"When I first came in,'' he said, "I thought, well, I'm a bottom dweller now. A nobody. I had to swallow my pride. It's embarrassing. But too many people depend on me."
He's had nibbles, but two companies that seemed interested required that he spend several hundred dollars for educational materials. "A scam,'' he said. "And I had bought a nice suit and tie for the interview.''
Like many others in construction, he has been taken hostage by the housing market. He could move where the prospects are better, but he can't sell his St. Petersburg home. He estimates there are 30 homes for sale in his neighborhood, and prices have plummeted. He can keep his house only another three months, so he just faxed his mortgage company to let them know. "Maybe we can work out some lower payments,'' he said. "Just until I get a job.''
He talks to his wife about any new leads, and he tries to keep a brave front. "I don't want to let her know,'' he said, "how really scared I am.''
And so every day, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., he comes here with his credentials, references and his St. Petersburg College diploma. He applied for a maintenance job in Tampa that pays $11 an hour. "I'll be the best floor mopper they've ever seen,'' he said.
With any luck, he won't be back here next week.
"You get to know everybody by name,'' said resource specialist Kent Graham. "When I don't see them, I'm kind of glad because that means they found work.
"But sometimes it just means they stopped looking.''