Hundreds flock to city job fair hoping to be hired


People attend the annual Gainesville Job Fair at the Martin Luther King Jr. Multipurpose Recreation Center onTuesday.

Doug Finger/Staff photographer
Published: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 at 5:24 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 at 5:24 p.m.

More than 30 vendors and about 1,000 job seekers squeezed into the 2013 Gainesville Job Fair on Tuesday, all hoping to make a match.

At 9:30 a.m., Joseph McFarland was among hundreds in line outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center at 1028 NE 14th St., waiting for his turn to get in.

"I just showed up with a bunch of resumes," he said. "What's the worst thing that could happen?"

McFarland, who spent the last two years in the military, said he had a job in Madison, near the Georgia border, working in the family construction business. But he needed a change, so he packed his bags in June and moved south to Gainesville, where he's staying with his sister.

"I was tired of coming home dusty every day," McFarland said, "so I'm trying something different."

As he stood outside, a voice rang over the crowd: "Has everybody signed in?"

Groups of 10 at a time shuffled indoors, where a labyrinth of booths from companies like Waffle House, Kangaroo, Gainesville Regional Airport and Infinite Energy offered a mixed bag of largely entry-level positions.

"Let's go," McFarland said.

The city's Job Fair Committee, which organized the second-year event, saw 1,250 people flock through the doors last year, committee member Candasy Young said.

"This year, we anticipate that number to be higher," Young said in the morning.

After the event, she said organizers counted 820 at noon. While no final tally was available late Tuesday, Young estimated around 1,000 people attended, slightly lower than expected.

It may be a reflection of improved economic conditions in Alachua County, where the jobless rate is 6 percent, below the 7.4 percent state and national rates.

Cecil Howard, director of the Gainesville Office of Equal Opportunity, noted that the job fair gives everyone, not just students, a chance at employment.

"It's for the people who actually live and work here and who happen to be unemployed or underemployed," Howard said.

Business vendors agreed with that message, but also sought out applicants who presented the best resumes or skill sets.

"We look for customer service, people who are personable and easy to talk to," said Greg Dattilo, district manager of 11 Kangaroo convenience stores in the Gainesville area.

While Kangaroo stores closer to the University of Florida or Santa Fe College campuses usually have more student workers, that's not the trend within the overall business, he said.

Dattilo said he had six or seven openings. He wasn't ruling out any category of job seeker but was looking for "the most flexible worker."

There were those at the job fair who fell into a gray area — no longer a student but not an established member of the adult workforce.

Asmine Williams, 22, said she graduated from Eastside High School in 2009 and did not go to college. She's been trying to get a job for the last four years and lives with her family in southeast Gainesville.

"No one contacts back," she said. "Living in Gainesville is hard."

Williams believes it's the strange work pool, which draws from more than 40,000 students and often disregards other residents.

"People that aren't students don't get an equal chance," she said.

Williams showed up without a resume but dropped by as many booths as possible. "Anywhere I can go," she said.

In a back room clothing booth, good friends Gavin Hall, 20, and Thomas "Andy" Harper, 22, tried on blue button-down shirts that the city provided to help job seekers "dress for success.''

"Just have no money at the moment," said Hall, who studied at SF College for three semesters until his funds were drained.

Now, he's doing "under-the-table work" for a family-owned storage unit company. He's living in Hampton, about 20 miles northeast. And soon he and Harper will make the move to Gainesville and find a place to live.

Harper said he moved back to Florida after finding no steady work in Atlanta. He wants to build a new life and arrange to see his daughter, Khloe, who is almost 2 years old and living with his estranged wife. But it all rests on him landing a job.

"I'm ready to go," he said.

Lawanda Copeland, 35, understands how difficult it is to earn enough money to support a family. She pulls in $80 to $120 a week from a private cleaning company, she said, and uses the money to provide for her three children.

She has a GED, which she received in 1992, but she hoped to show potential employers that she is the kind of worker they need.

"It's hard," she said. "But I'm doing it. I'm getting through. That's why I'm here. It's going to be OK."

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