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Slim pickings for small businesses

Good help is tough to find.

If you're a small-business owner, you probably already knew that.

What you might not know is that you are not alone.

Finding qualified help is one of the top three challenges small- business owners face, according a National Small Business United survey of 966 small and midsized businesses.

Only increased competition, the state of the economy and labor costs were ranked as bigger problems by more business owners surveyed by the business advocacy group.

The problem is especially keen for small-business owners, who often compete for the best workers against big companies that offer more benefits.

The survey results don't surprise Adrienne Davis, who helps her father at his two small Clearwater businesses _ Model Screw Products Inc., a machine shop, and ONICON Inc., which makes meters that measure water flow and temperature through pipes.

"We could run an ad for two or three weeks and get just a handful of people who are worth looking at again," she said.

And it's not as though Model Screw Products is looking for applicants with the skills of rocket scientists.

"A couple of the problems that we are having is that people don't read and write very well," she said. "Grown people come in and they need help filling out the application."

One man brought his 11-year-old son with him to fill out the application for him, Davis said.

And "there are so many people who can't add," she said.

It's not uncommon for a person to show up looking for work wearing torn shorts, flip-flops and a T-shirt bearing the name of a rock 'n' roll band, Davis said.

"People just don't really know how to conduct themselves in an interview," she said.

Finding good help was the topic of conversation last Monday when a group of business people gathered with educators for a summit sponsored by the Pinellas Regional Partnership.

The partnership, which is developing a system to better prepare students for work, asked business people to list what they found lacking in job applicants.

The No. 1 answer?

A strong work ethic.

Close runner up?

Good basic skills in math, language and communication.

Teresa Burney covers small-business and workplace issues for the Times. Write to her at 1000 N Ashley Drive, Suite 700, Tampa, FL 33602, or send electronic mail to