TAMPA — Jobs may be scarce, but one local employer can't seem to fill all its open positions.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is hiring for more than 200 spots, some of which have been open for several years despite the lure of health benefits, paid retirement, 24-hour gyms and salaries starting at $44,335.
Sheriff David Gee said he is surprised there are so many open positions, considering the record unemployment rates, and Col. Jim Previtera, head of the county's jails, agreed.
"We thought that people who had maybe considered being a cop would come in," Previtera said. "We haven't seen that."
About half the open positions are in the county's jails and half are in law enforcement. Previtera said he really could use 100 more deputies. He has to constantly shuffle employees and pay overtime, he said.
"It's a giant chess game," he said. "If you have the flu go through here, you're in trouble."
Other local law enforcement agencies don't have nearly as many openings.
Pasco and Pinellas counties are only hiring for a few positions. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said a budget shortfall has her looking at cutting the size of the police force. And as of mid March, the St. Petersburg Police Department had just 15 spots open and 17 cadets going through the police academy.
"The bad economy has helped us find new recruits, but the budgets are a bit tight and that creates a problem with maintaining staffing levels," said St. Petersburg police spokesman Bill Proffitt.
Part of the reason there are so many openings in the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is simply that it's such a large agency. With about 3,600 employees, it's one of the biggest in the region.
And it's not that Hillsborough County isn't getting any applicants. About 3,000 people applied to be a deputy last year, said Lt. Kyle Cockream, who trains deputies. But the office's long application process and high standards weed out a lot of people, he said. Most drop out or are rejected.
"We'll lose about 50 percent of people just in the physical abilities assessment," Cockream said.
That's the first hurdle potential trainees must pass. They have to do 25 sit-ups in 60 seconds, 20 pushups in a minute and run a mile and a half in 15 minutes.
Then comes the application, interview, polygraph test and background check. Executive staff consider the best applicants, and those selected go through a psychological and physical evaluation.
"We lose people along the whole way," Cockream said.
If they make it through those steps, recruits go to a two-week boot camp called Sheriff's Orientation Training, or S.O.T., which the Sheriff's Office launched several years ago to further weed out applicants.
Before S.O.T., Cockream said, some applicants would go straight to the academy and in-house training, which takes 22 to 30 weeks, and then drop out. When that happened, the Sheriff's Office would lose even more of its investment. The boot camp has helped cut costs, he said.
On Thursday, the latest group of S.O.T. recruits trained at a Brandon pool, practicing water rescues. Twenty-three recruits stood at attention in yellow shirts, black cargo pants and boots. "Aye, sir!" they barked when necessary.
The program models military training and emphasizes teamwork. It's part of Sheriff's Gee's bottom-up approach to changing the culture of the office. He wants dedicated employees who keep each other accountable, he said.
The latest group of recruits includes Benjamin Williams, 23, a former University of South Florida running back, as well as several men who served in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Williams said he hopes to work with the special weapons and tactics team and eventually become a major. And even though he's still toned from football, he said the physical training at the boot camp has been difficult. In just the first four days, two recruits dropped out.
"It's a tough program," Williams said. "You have to come in here physically and mentally prepared."
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.