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Help wanted: Job fair at Harris-Stowe brings out the unemployed but hopeful

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 7, 2010 - In a sign of the times, hundreds of people packed into a college gym, all looking for work. The mostly African-American crowd lined up at tables for information on what could be a new career. No table was left vacant as resume-wielding people of all ages and backgrounds politely spoke with representatives. Some wore suits and brandished leather-bound folders, while others donned jeans and held stacks of paper.

By the end of the day on Monday, more than 4,000 people were expected to file into the Harris-Stowe State University's Emerson Physical Education & Performing Arts Center for the Fifth Annual Career Fair sponsored by U.S. Reps. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, and Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis. The fair hosted 100 employers who accepted resumes, encouraged applicants to apply online and conversed about various job duties.

According to Clay's communications director Steven Engelhardt, the fair is geared toward everyone, not just skilled or unskilled workers. While the St. Louis area hosts many career fairs, Clay's fair is special because of its broader approach -- and because it works, Engelhardt said.

"We have testimonies from folks who hired their best and most eager people right here," added Engelhardt.

Employers at the fair included the Boeing Co., Express Scripts, the U.S. Postal Service, Wells Fargo Advisers, and Office Depot. According to the release, for the third consecutive year, the U.S. Office of Personnel helped job seekers learn about and apply for more than 10,000 jobs.

"The entire economy is here," said Engelhardt. "There's an opportunity for anyone at any level, everything from entry level all the way up to senior management."

Despite the fair's best efforts to connect the unemployed with potential employers, the statistics remain troubling. As of April, the numbers for the St. Louis metro area -- the last statistics reported by the Department of Labor Statistics -- are just under the national rate of 9.7 percent. For African Americans, the national unemployment is 15.5 percent. A study released June 8 by the Economic Policy Institute found that for 2009, the St. Louis metro area had the third highest black unemployment rate in the country, following Detroit and Minneapolis -- 17.3 percent, more than double the white unemployment rate of 8.4 percent.

"There are 10 jobs and about 5,000 people who need those jobs," said Tucnica McCollum, who has been on the job hunt for over a year.

McCollum hopes to get a job in customer service and has visited other career fairs, submitted online applications and visited websites like CareerBuilder.com. She estimates that only 5 percent of the jobs she has applied for have contacted her and says the true litmus test of the Clay fair will be how many employers call her back in the coming weeks.

"It's tough. You can't buy anything if you don't have the money," McCollum said. "The economy is not getting any better."

Annetta Rhone echoed McCollum's sentiments. Rhone last had a job with a temporary work service five months ago. She's been on the job hunt ever since, and it hasn't been easy. Like McCollum, she has used websites and other career fairs, but her efforts have been fruitless. Rhone blames the market's saturation of unemployed people.

"There are so many people who are just out of work," Rhone said. "There's tough competition out here, that's what makes it so hard."

What makes the job market even harder to break into is an influx of recent college graduates vying for jobs that do not pertain to their degrees. Although no recording labels or music-related employers were at the job fair, recent New York University graduate Lova Randrianasolo could be found passing out his resume to anyone who would accept it. Randrianasolo, who earned a degree in music business, began searching for a job during his last semester at NYU. He was unable to find a job in the music industry and had to refine his search.

"At first I was only applying in my degree, but now I just need a job," said Randrianasolo. "I'm just glad there is a career fair. It's tough out there."

Patrick Sullivan, student at the University of Kentucky, is an intern at the Beacon. 

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