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Looking for a living in bay area's market // 390 JOBS

The jobs pay but $5.77 an hour. Before taxes.

But a job is a job, and that's what mattered to more than 1,500 people who jammed a Continental Airlines jobfest at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Tampa on Tuesday. They were hoping for a shot at one of 390 new local jobs as a Continental reservations sales agent.

Although the unemployment rate in the Tampa Bay area is relatively low _ 5 percent _ the lure of a job with a solid benefit package at a big company was easy to see. Hundreds filled out forms, stood patiently in long lines and fielded questions during a first round of interviews.

The turnout spoke volumes about a phenomenon that many say is growing in Tampa Bay and elsewhere _ that the problem is not that folks are unemployed, it's that many are underemployed. With dead-end, low-paying jobs, they would see a job with possibilities for promotion and some stability as a godsend.

Continental recruiters had estimated that 1,000 applicants, at most, might apply for the entry-level jobs. Instead, they had to call in support from other Continental hubs: Extra applications and supplies were flown in midmorning from Newark, N.J., and Houston, then rushed from Tampa International Airport to the Hyatt.

"Thank goodness we work at an airline," said Deborah Stewart, the reservations sales recruiter. Since Continental announced the new jobs to the public in early January, Stewart said she has been deluged with calls and applications.

"This is unbelievable," she said, looking at the crowd as the afternoon session of screening and interviewing got under way. "There is a lot of experienced people here. Not everyone is a $5.77 applicant. They have master's degrees, college degrees."

One such person Tuesday was a man wearing a beige suit, silk tie and wingtips burnished to a gleam. Holding a shiny leather portfolio and possessing a master's degree in business administration, Ross declined to divulge his last name.

That's not good for business. His business these days is landing a full-time steady job without jeopardizing the two temporary jobs he has now.

"It ($5.77) doesn't sound like a whole lot," said Ross, who moved to Tampa from Miami in 1989 when his wife got a new job and promotion. He has a master's degree from the University of South Florida and worked at a small phosphate company before it was acquired and he was laid off. Now, he works 68 hours a week in two temporary jobs.

"I'm hoping for a career in a company I can grow with. This looks like a strong company."

He and hundreds of other hopefuls made the Hyatt a bustling place Tuesday. Even the hotel staff was pressed into action, as the hotel fax machine received resumes and phone lines buzzed with inquiries from job hopefuls.

Tampa is one of five reservation centers for the airline. The Tampa center operates 21 hours a day and handles calls from Eastern cities. The job fair was for reservation agents only.

About 800 people currently work in the company's reservation center on Columbus Drive, at the southern edge of Tampa International. Of the 390 new jobs, about 234 will be full time.

At $5.77 an hour, a weekly full-time paycheck amounts to $230.80 before taxes. Reservationists, who handle hundreds of calls during each eight-hour shift, also get bonuses.

The airline's incentives program encourages the agents not just to answer questions but to actively sell Continental tickets and special programs. Reservations manager Jim Crabtree said incentives add about $120 per month to an agent's paycheck.

The new employees, who will have the least seniority when bidding on hours they want to work, will be paid about $14,000 a year.

"It's hard to find employment at a good company that has benefits these days," said Yolanda Mendez, who arrived well before 8 a.m. to get in line. "The flexible hours really suit my needs."

Benefits include extensive training, health care, profit sharing, stock purchase options, paid vacations, retirement accounts and travel passes that allow employees and their relatives to travel cheaply. The company also promotes from within. But Mendez said one benefit was better than all the rest: "How about a job?"

How to apply

Continental Airlines is still accepting applications for reservations sales agents at its Tampa office. Anyone can apply by writing to the company at:

Continental Airlines

Reservations Sales

4101 W Columbus Drive

Tampa, FL 33607

Attn: Personnel