As a construction supervisor for 17 years, Randy Cady traveled the country hiring workers to build restaurants and stores before the construction slump ended his job a year and a half ago.
At age 54, Cady now is the one looking to be hired. The Dunlap, Tenn., builder, who once earned more than $100,000 a year, was among 1,600 job seekers who showed up Thursday at a job fair in Brainerd looking for work.
"I'm hoping things get better," said Cady, noting the health benefits he has been paying for from his former employer expired last week. "I was never unemployed before this, and it's really been tough to make it."
Cady was among those pitching their talents to Mann+Hummel USA, a Kalamazoo, Mich.-based business hiring workers for a new plant in Dunlap scheduled to begin production in July. The automotive parts business and 63 other employers took applications throughout the five-hour job fair Thursday.
Kevin Vichinsky, manager of human resources for Mann+Hummel, said the company got more than 950 applicants at an earlier job fair in Dunlap. But the company still is looking for a half dozen specialized and salaried managers and technicians to start up the plant.
"We've definitely seen some people here we want to talk with some more," Vichinsky said.
Erskine Oglesby, the business service representative for the Tennessee Career Center who helped organize Thursday's job fair, said more than 200 job offers were made to applicants at a similar job fair a year ago, and he expects an even bigger number this year.
"All the companies I talked with said they saw strong candidates and were impressed with the number and the quality of the job applicants," he said.
Despite the improving job market, 18,600 Chattanoogans still are unemployed and looking for work, according to the latest government estimates.
Unemployment in metropolitan Chattanooga has dropped by more than a fourth from the peak levels reached in the fall of 2009.
In March, the most recent month for which figures are available, unemployment in metro Chattanooga was 7.1 percent compared with the U.S. jobless rate of 8.2 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The jobless rate could decline further in Chattanooga with dozens of area employers at Thursday's job fair trying to fill vacancies or expand their businesses this year.
HomeServe USA, a provider of home repair service programs, was taking applications for call center jobs expected to open up this summer as part of 120 jobs the company is adding in Chattanooga. The company's own job fair last month helped fill 18 of those jobs.
Susan Harris, director of human resources at See Rock City, said the Lookout Mountain attraction is filling the last of the 40 seasonal jobs it adds every spring.
"These fairs help us attract job seekers and get the word out about our business," Harris said.
James Lockhard, training director for the Iron Workers Joint Apprenticeship and Training Program, Local 704, said he got more than 100 applicants for the union's next 45-student training program, which begins in August.
Most employers said they got far more applications than they expect to need this year. But job applicants at the Brainerd job fair said they were encouraged by the number of employers hiring in the area.
"I'm optimistic because the job market is definitely looking better," said Matthew Ridge, a 26-year-old job seeker from Red Bank who said he has worked only temporary jobs since October 2011. "Two years ago, it was hard to even get an interview. But a lot more companies are looking for workers today."