ST. PETERSBURG — Wendell Tart walked into the windowless room with little else than a yearning for financial stability.
The 60 year old from St. Petersburg did not have a resume because he owns neither a computer nor a printer, and hadn’t had the time to go to the local library. He did not have a car — it broke a few months ago and he couldn’t afford to pay for the repairs.
But he said he is a hard worker, and needs more than the $14 an hour he is currently earning sweeping floors and cleaning dishes at a nearby hospital. So he approached one of the two dozen employer tables at the job fair organized by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority Wednesday morning and smiled.
“What are y’all hiring for?” he asked.
“Everything,” replied Earl Carter, a food service worker supervisor at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Carter explained that the starting salary for food service workers had been bumped from $12.85 to $16.40 this June. Tart nodded and wrote down his contact information.
The job fair was the brainchild of the Pinellas bus agency’s leadership program and an effort to bring together riders and employers found on some of their major routes. About half of riders uses their bus service to get to and from work, according to agency staff.
They spread the word by Google ads, social media posts, putting flyers on the buses and texting riders. About 60 job seekers attended the event, according to agency spokesperson Stephanie Rank.
Here, in Florida’s most densely populated county, accessible, convenient and reliable transportation can often feel elusive to those who do not own or cannot operate a car. A 2017 Tampa Bay Times investigation found that transportation systems in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties lag behind their peers by almost any metric.
In 2011, the Brookings Institute calculated the number of jobs a typical commuter could reach via bus and rail in every major American city. They found that in Tampa Bay, a 45-minute trip could reach about 29,000 jobs. Only three other communities of at least two million people scored so low.
And a 2019 report from personal finance website WalletHub found that Tampa ranked as the third worst city for public transportation and St. Petersburg ranked as the second worst.
Tart said he came to the job fair specifically because he wanted to be a bus operator. He’d heard the wages were decent and he found driving calming, he said.
His current job didn’t offer any 401(k)-matching — “at least, not that I know of,” he added. He’d been there for three months, but was looking for more economic stability for his wife and son. But his job search was confined to bus routes.
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The transmission on the secondhand black Chevrolet Cerato he’d owned for eight years broke earlier this summer. The repairs are complete, but he cannot afford to pay the mechanic. “Every time I get a little extra money, something else always calls up,” he said.
Next he visited the table for SLYCE, a pizzeria with three restaurant in Pinellas, all on bus routes.
“We are hiring for every position,” said Carrie Heideman, a SLYCE office administrative assistant. In an effort to temper understaffing issues, she added they had improved flexibility of shifts and bumped wages up to $12-15 depending on experience, when previously some kitchen staff worked for $10 an hour.
The restaurant on St. Pete Beach, which opened last summer, was particularly short staffed, she said, and unable to operate at full capacity. “We can’t wait for the SunRunner,” she said, hoping the bus rapid transit line opening this October will bring more customers and prospective employees alike.
“I’ll give you a call and we’ll set something up,” Heideman told Tart as he took one of the promotional orange bags from her table and another print out.
Also at the fair was Brandon Vinieratos, a human resources specialist with the city of St. Petersburg. “Blue-collar jobs are hard to fill,” he said. “We’ve been struggling with those even though we’ve been raising base wages to $15 an hour.”
A few tables away were representatives from the Jolley Trolley, particularly in need of carpenters and experienced drivers. Across the room were employees at tax preparation company H&R Block, a sign on their table reading: “Bilingual candidates strongly encouraged to apply!”
After a final lap around the room, Tart walked out of the building and headed for the bus stop, where he would wait for the No. 52 to bring him to his 8-hour shift.