ST. PETERSBURG — Wendell Tart entered the windowless room with little more than a desire for financial stability.
The 60-year-old from St Petersburg didn’t have a CV because he doesn’t own a computer or printer and didn’t have time to go to the local library. He didn’t have a car — it broke down a few months ago and he couldn’t afford the repairs.
But he said he is a hard worker and needs more than the $14 an hour he currently earns sweeping floors and cleaning dishes at a nearby hospital. So he approached one of the two dozen tables of employers at the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority job fair on Wednesday morning and smiled.
“Why are you hiring? ” He asked.
“Everything,” replied Earl Carter, supervisor of food service workers at Veterans Affairs.
Carter explained that the starting salary for food service workers rose from $12.85 to $16.40 in June. Tart nodded and wrote down his coordinates.
The job fair was the brainchild of the Pinellas Bus Agency Leadership Program and an effort to bring together riders and employers found on some of their major routes. According to agency staff, about half of users use their bus service to get to and from work.
They spread the word through Google ads, social media posts, putting flyers on buses and texting passengers. About 60 job seekers attended the event, according to agency spokeswoman Stephanie Rank.
Here in Florida’s most densely populated county, accessible, convenient, and reliable transportation can often seem elusive to those who don’t own or can’t drive a car. A 2017 Tampa Bay Times investigation found that the transportation systems in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties lag behind their peers by nearly every measure.
In 2011, the Brookings Institute calculated the number of jobs a typical commuter could reach via bus and train in every major US city. They found that in Tampa Bay, a 45-minute trip could achieve about 29,000 jobs. Only three other communities of at least two million people scored this low.
And a 2019 report by personal finance website WalletHub found Tampa ranked third worst city for public transportation and St. Petersburg second.
Tart said he came to the job fair specifically because he wanted to be a bus driver. He had heard the salaries were decent and he found the ride soothing, he said.
His current job offered no 401(k) matching — “at least not that I’m aware of,” he added. He had been there for three months, but was looking for greater economic stability for his wife and son. But his job search was limited to bus lines.
The transmission of the used black Chevrolet Cerato he had owned for eight years broke earlier this summer. The repairs are finished, but he can’t afford to pay the mechanic. “Whenever I get a little extra money, something else always calls,” he said.
Then he visited the table of SLYCE, a pizzeria with three restaurants in Pinellas, all on the bus lines.
“We’re hiring for every position,” said Carrie Heideman, administrative assistant at the SLYCE office. In an effort to alleviate understaffing issues, she added that they have improved shift flexibility and increased salaries up to $12-15 depending on experience, whereas previously some staff members Kitchen staff worked for $10 an hour.
The St. Pete Beach restaurant, which opened last summer, was particularly understaffed, she said, and was unable to operate at full capacity. “We can’t wait for the SunRunner,” she said, hoping the opening of the bus rapid transit line in October will attract more customers and potential employees.
“I’ll call you and we’ll arrange something,” Heideman told Tart, taking one of the promotional orange bags from his table and another printout.
Brandon Vinieratos, human resources specialist from the city of St. Petersburg, was also present at the fair. “Blue-collar jobs are hard to fill,” he said. “We struggled with those even though we raised base salaries to $15 an hour.”
A few tables away were representatives of the Jolley Trolley, particularly looking for experienced carpenters and drivers. On the other side of the room were employees of the tax preparation company H&R Block, a sign on their table reading: “Bilingual candidates are strongly encouraged to apply!”
After a final lap around the room, Tart exited the building and headed for the bus stop, where he would wait for No. 52 to take him to his 8-hour shift.
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