More than 1,000 job seekers from all walks of life, education levels and professional backgrounds packed the recreation center in Fountain Valley on Wednesday for the Central Orange County Job Fair.
"The unemployment rate in Orange County is at 8 percent, which is the lowest unemployment in the state, but you'd never know it today because look at how many people are here," said Chris Strom, director of business services and center manager at Orange County's One-Stop Center in Buena Park.
About 600 positions were expected to be available from 33 local employers in a variety of industries, including health care, manufacturing, hospitality, education and financial services. High-profile tech jobs were less prevalent, but that didn't stop Anthony Kerhin of Brea, laid off last October after 25 years as a systems engineer at Raytheon, from braving the crowds in search of his next career.
"I've been doing the same type of work for 25 years, and during that time, I've worn a variety of different hats," Kerhin said. "I've gotten to learn what types of thing I really like, and what things I didn't like as much... Some of the responses that I've gotten are less interesting to me than what I'm looking for. Some companies have been interested quite a bit in me, but it's going to take a while to find a match. It's kind of a mating dance."
Victoria Starling of Aliso Viejo has a similar background, having spent 20 years as an IT manager, but that's where the similarities end in terms of her job search. Originally from New Jersey, she moved to California two months ago and has been trying to find work ever since.
"I've applied for at least a few jobs every single day, and nobody's gotten back to me," Starling said. "I'm not even looking for that high of a position anymore."
Like Kerhin, Staring said she's willing to entertain ideas of a new career path. It's an emerging trend among job seekers, who see unemployment as an opportunity to follow their passions into what might seem like drastic career jumps. To that end, such organizations as the Art Institute of California are catering to professionals like graphic designers and other artists who might need more education to further their artistic careers, and other professionals looking to find new ones.
"A lot of people I deal with are holding out in their field," said Brea Saine, a business development representative for the Art Institute, which has a campus in Santa Ana. "They really want to stick with that option. I do see people who maybe have a lot of work experience who want to come and teach with us. We have a lot of those."
In this job market, helping people find jobs -- and helping employers find the right talent -- has become an industry in and of itself. Among the organizations at the job fair working toward that end was ResCare Workforce Services, a private company contracted by the county to arm job seekers with the information and motivation they need to find work. Sandi McGuire, a job developer with ResCare, said that the company encourages its clients to tap into the "hidden job market."
McGuire said that because only about 20 percent of employers advertise their job openings, the standard online destinations most job seekers visit represent only about 4 percent of the available positions.
"What they're seeing is extremely discouraging, and it's no wonder they're thinking there are no jobs out there," McGuire said. "So we teach our participants to tap into the hidden market -- to go out and talk to managers, talk to companies and ask them what they're hiring for.
"We teach them to show up in a suit with their resumes and have a conversation with a manager. They make their way into an interview through gentle persistence. That's what we teach: When you can't get through the front door, go through the side window."
Drew Duncan of La Habra is one of ResCare's clients. Duncan has 10 years of experience as a warehouse manager, but hasn't worked in the two years since the death of his wife. He spent one of those years training to be an electrician, and was at the job fair Wednesday looking to get back to work.
"So far, it's a little rough out there, but it's starting to look up," Duncan said. "I'm looking for anything. Maybe something new, something fun. I'm up for anything."
The county is also helping job seekers on a variety of fronts, one of which is through its Veterans Service Office. Frank Fletcher, a former Marine and a veterans workforce specialist for the county, said that one of the biggest obstacles veterans face when trying to join the private sector is that they're not aware of the resources available to them, many of which are federally mandated. After that, he said, it's just a matter of finding ways to translate their skills to the civilian workforce.
"It's not easy for HR managers to understand what [veterans] did, and it's not easy for [veterans] to understand what the HR manager wants to see," Fletcher said. "You don't have to train a veteran to take an order and execute it. Veterans have that skill when they walk in the door. They're committed to you. That's another skill that just comes with that person -- loyalty -- they're loyal to you. As an employer, you want someone who's going to be there for you."