The odds of finding work in a 10 percent unemployment climate remain frustratingly long Friday for the 615 job seekers at the Winston-Salem Urban League's annual career fair.
But as they entered the gymnasium of Forsyth Technical Community College's West campus, their collective sense of optimism and hope was unmistakable.
Unlike many recent job fairs, in which the best outcome to be expected was a handshake and an exchanged resume, many of the 47 participating employers are actively hiring.
Those employers, including BB&T Corp., Caterpillar Inc., Inmar Inc., Pepsi Bottling Ventures LLC and RockTenn Co., are not looking for workers when and if the economy turns around. They say they need qualified applicants now.
That reality stoked Marcy Lucas' pursuit of a new information-technology or project coordinator job after a 10-month employment contract wasn't renewed. She said she was out of work for about a year before the contract job came along.
"I know there are jobs out there and that it's a matter of matching my skills and talents with the employers, and getting a chance to show them what I can do," Lucas said after speaking with Inmar recruiters.
Lucas said she has tried her best to stay optimistic in her job search "because otherwise it gets frustrating and draining."
"Even if there isn't a right fit with one employer here, maybe they have heard of other companies that are hiring that might be a fit," Lucas said.
The bulk of the job seekers ranged from their early 30s to late 60s, with a demographic mix leaning 50-50 in terms of race and sex.
David Coady, an Inmar recruiter, said the company has IT and customer-service job openings created by attrition and expansion.
The company committed in April to expanding in Winston-Salem, pledging to add 212 jobs and retain more than 700 employees. It said in July it was moving its headquarters to downtown by late 2013.
"We have between 10 and 12 openings now on our website, and that can fluctuate on a daily basis," Coady said. "We need tech expertise for the IT positions and some level of previous customer-service experience."
When asked the odds of Friday's job seekers eventually getting hired by Inmar, Coady stressed it was "pretty good."
"We have received, as you can imagine since the announcement, a huge number of applications," Coady said. "An online application is a must so we can track applicants.
"However, one of the reasons we come to these job fairs is because we tend to meet people who come cold to our booth. They may have many of the job skills we are looking for. That's why I always bring a notebook to write down those people who made a good impression on me."
RockTenn's Merchandising Displays division has about 30 job openings, many related to a new shift it has started in Winston-Salem, according to Tonya Chatwood, a human-resources coordinator. The company has more than 600 local employees after completing its acquisition of Smurfit-Stone earlier this year.
"Some of the jobs are those that have opened up because employees have been promoted," Chatwood said. "Qualified candidates for our entry-level jobs in many instances need a high-school diploma or a GED."
Chatwood said applicants will go through a series of five tests before getting an interview. The company's goal is to fill as many of the job openings as soon as possible, with some being hired by the end of the month.
Caterpillar, understandably, had the most popular booth in the early hours of the job fair given the company's stability and plans to have 510 full- and part-time jobs.
Allen Unger, a human-resources official, said Caterpillar is ramping up the machinist side of operations as the foundation and flooring work is completed.
Rusty Davis, the plant manager, has said Caterpillar will hire up to 120 machinists. The company projects reaching full production at the plant by early 2014, operating around the clock in the machinist side and two shifts in the assembly side outside scheduled maintenance breaks.
"We prefer five or more years in experience with machinery, along with computer skills and blueprint reading, but we will hire entry-level positions for those with a two-year associate's degree," Unger said. Entry-level hires will go through a six-week orientation period for machinists.
Refuting the argument that math skills learned in high school don't have real-world applications, Unger said machinist applicants also need a "good working knowledge" of geometry and trigonometry.
"Given the competitive nature for machinists in this area, we're certainly not in a position to cherry-pick our hires," Unger said.
The crowded aisles brought a pleased smile to Keith Grandberry, chief executive and president of the Urban League.
Grandberry preaches to people seeking employment and job-training assistance that they "have to create opportunities for themselves because it's still a very tough job market."
"It's not hard to encourage employers to come to our career fair because they know many of the job seekers here have gone through our program this week and may be better qualified than those they see at a typical job fair," Grandberry said.
"Conversely, the job applicants know that many of these employers are not just talking about hiring, but are serious about it. They know that the employers know that by attending our programs, they have a leg up on the competition."
That's what Cynthia Moir said she's counting on in finding a health-care counseling job. She worked 26 years for Forsyth Medical Center before taking another job in April. The new job, however, fell through, dumping her into the job market.
"The Urban League taught me how to better present myself, brand myself, sell myself to employers," Moir said. "I've already made three good contacts for next week, so I am on Cloud 9 about my chances of getting hired."
David Waugh is hoping that putting a face with a name at the job fair eventually will make him stand out in employers' data bases. He said he has applied with many of the employers actively hiring with little response to date.
Waugh came to the Triad in 2005 as part of Dell Inc.'s set-up crew from its Lebanon, Tenn., computer-assembly plant. He was affected by one of the first major Dell job cuts in 2009, but was hired back as a contract worker until the plant closed in November 2010.
He said he chose to stay here because he has two school-age children and his family "loves the area."
"I'm looking for a steady job because I'm tired of draining down our savings and tired of having to depend on unemployment benefits," Waugh said.
"I'm hoping that my skills will work well in particular with Caterpillar, so I would be willing to take a contract job with them just to get my foot in the door."
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