TOPICS > Economy

Tampa Faces Troubled Economic Recovery

April 12, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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As part of the Spotlight City series in Tampa on how the economic crisis has affected attitudes toward government, Gwen Ifill talks to four Floridians about the unstable housing market, high unemployment rates, the soaring cost of living and the lack of access to education.
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GWEN IFILL: The housing market is just one element of the overriding unease here. Joblessness, the soaring cost of living and access to education are also factors.

Joining us to share their views and their stories on how Florida’s boom went bust are Norm Stephens. He’s president of South Florida Community College, located in a county where unemployment has quadrupled in the past five years. Holly Tomlin owns a Tampa employment agency that places people in temporary and permanent positions. Jennifer Orr-Bryan is an unemployed retail worker whose own house is in foreclosure. And Chuck Thomas, an out-of-work electrician, has decided to go back to school, in hopes of finding a new career.

Chuck Thomas, I want to start with you, because you lost your house two years ago, living with your wife in a one-bedroom apartment, no job, no health insurance.

CHUCK THOMAS, unemployed electrician: No.

GWEN IFILL: How are you breaking out of that vicious cycle?

Well, the — well, we really have all of our eggs in school, education. When I became an electrician, I never expected to be out of work. It was not something I foresaw 20 years ago. And, so, I’m going back to college.

GWEN IFILL: What are you hoping to get out of college?

CHUCK THOMAS: An opportunity. You know, just — at this point, it’s just hope, honestly, because there’s no jobs out there for electricians. So, I’m just looking to keep my head above water, I guess, keep going the right direction.

GWEN IFILL: Norm Stephens, you have seen this at your college, where enrollment has been up, what, 24 percent?

NORM STEPHENS, President, South Florida Community College: Twenty-four percent in the last three years.

GWEN IFILL: Because of people like Chuck?

NORM STEPHENS: Absolutely.

It’s very difficult for people. But they come back to school when — when they’re out of work. And it’s a good thing that they do that. I think it helps them to get opportunities in the future.

GWEN IFILL: What is it they’re looking for when they come back to school?

NORM STEPHENS: A number of different things.

Certainly, they’re looking for career — careers that may be more secure. For example, in the allied health nursing area, we’re getting a number of students that are interested in going into those careers, because it means, they think, greater job security.

But, also, in fact, our largest enrollment increases are in the traditional first two years of a baccalaureate degree program, the traditional student enrollment. That’s where we’re seeing actually over 30 percent growth over the last three years.

They want to get the first two years in, and then move on and get a bachelor’s degree, and, hopefully, that will improve their opportunities.

GWEN IFILL: Jennifer Orr-Bryan, I saw you nodding your head when you saw the person in Paul Solman’s piece saying that he tried to get his loan modified and could get no help.

What have you been doing to make ends meet?

JENNIFER ORR-BRYAN, unemployed retail worker: It’s been three years that I have been waiting on modification. Trial period, turned down. Trial period, turned down. Start over. Send more paper. Fax more paper. Mail more paper. Pre-register.

I would go to the post office and send all the paperwork in. Nothing is happening. I’m working with Catholic Charities, who is HUD-certified, which is one of the requirements of having your — having the bank look at your loan. They still not working with us.

So, now I’m hoping to use the new program for the unemployed and to see if something is there to help someone like me, who is this close to losing my home.

GWEN IFILL: You have been doing a lot of temp work.

JENNIFER ORR-BRYAN: Temp work and Mary Kay Cosmetics.

GWEN IFILL: So, you have been selling cosmetics. You have been selling cars. You’ve been…

JENNIFER ORR-BRYAN: Making beautiful is to keep my soul beautiful.

GWEN IFILL: Yes, whatever works for you.

Well, let’s ask Holly about it, because you work with a lot of people who are in the same position that Jennifer Orr-Bryan is in.

HOLLY TOMLIN, employment counselor: Sure do.

GWEN IFILL: And do you find that they’re all just cobbling together whatever they can?

HOLLY TOMLIN: Well, we get a lot — for different reasons, people come to us. But, for folks who are in between jobs, a lot of folks are trying to make their mortgage payments, so they have to augment with not just a temp, but also Mary Kay or what other — I have seen a lot of other types of businesses out there, pyramid businesses as well.

But temp has been a wonderful way to get through, because, a lot of times, that will lead you to something full-time.

GWEN IFILL: Is that really true? Are people being led to full-time jobs, or are they pretty much taking one temp job after another temp job after another?

HOLLY TOMLIN: It can be that way. And, by design, some people like it that way. But we’re seeing things are changing within the last month, where companies are beginning to take some of these folks on full-time.

So, we’re seeing some light at the end of the tunnel — tunnel, especially for the health field and education are the two areas. Colleges are hiring. And our hospitals are hiring. So, we’re focusing on getting people funneled into and retrained, so that they can, you know, go into those fields.

GWEN IFILL: So, assume for a moment that there is some light at the end of this tunnel, as Holly so optimistically sees, some — beginning of a turnaround.

Let’s talk about what government’s role can be in all of this. I come from Washington, where government is supposed to be always involved, right? So, your — you run a community college. Is the state government, is the federal government helping you cope with all these extra students?

NORM STEPHENS: Yes, it is, in a number of different ways.

We receive federal monies to help us with our vocational programs that are very expensive and so-called Carl Perkins grants that come to our colleges, help pay for equipment, keep us state-of-the-art, also financial aid. In our case, over 80 percent of our students receive some kind of financial assistance. Much of that is through the federal government.

GWEN IFILL: So, has that government funding kept up with the pace of growth?

NORM STEPHENS: Yes, it — it has to some extent.

I will tell you that our 25 percent enrollment increase over the last three years, during that same time period, our state revenues have declined 10 percent, state revenues that come to our college.

GWEN IFILL: So, it doesn’t sound like it is keeping up.

NORM STEPHENS: Well, but, on the other hand, tuition has gone up. Tuition has gone up, in our case, 24 percent. And, also, our enrollment has increased. So, the tuition revenues coming in partially offset the reductions in state revenues. But it — the government helps in a number of ways.

GWEN IFILL: So, that tuition increase comes out of your pocket, Chuck, as you’re trying to turn things around. How much is the government helping you in your bid to switch careers?

CHUCK THOMAS: Well, currently, most of my school comes from Pell Grants. I do take out loans to cover up the shortfalls there.

But, you know, unemployment is — I have exhausted all my unemployment at this point. And there’s nothing else out there. So, it’s kind of a trepidatious time currently. I don’t know what I’m going to do next, honestly.

I have got — I have — school is paid for. I just have to eat and pay rent in the meantime. So, it’s kind of tough. It’s scary.

GWEN IFILL: Do you expect Washington or Tallahassee to come to the rescue?

CHUCK THOMAS: I hope so. Expect? No. I would hope, you know, somebody would.

GWEN IFILL: Jennifer, you’re — if I may say, you’re over 50 years old.

JENNIFER ORR-BRYAN: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: You’re out here in the job market. And you’re hoping to break through in some way.

Do you expect government to step in and help you?

JENNIFER ORR-BRYAN: I would love to see a difference made, so that over 50 is — I find that that’s where a lot of the jobs have been lost, because they’re not hiring if you’re at a certain age. And they’re not hiring you for full-time. And they’re not allowing you stay on the job that you’re in.

Once you get to a certain age, you’re, like, forced out because of the benefits part of it. And, so, I’m looking forward to a program that will help people that are over 50.

GWEN IFILL: Holly Tomlin, in Washington, there’s been a lot of talk about stimulus spending to create jobs and other job-creation solutions. Has that trickled down?

HOLLY TOMLIN: It’s beginning to, yes.

One of the things that we have had happen is our — the stimulus money for the rapid transit or the high-speed rail. And I believe that will create a lot of jobs for us. And off — I’m from Cleveland. I have lived here 26 years.

Off the rails, you know, you will have businesses that crop up. I think more entrepreneurs will grow out of that. And — and home values will also probably increase over time, because, if you live near the train, that’s a good thing for everyone to be able to get, you know, to and from home to work efficiently.

So, I think it’s starting to for us, absolutely.

GWEN IFILL: So, Chuck, when you hear people talk about stimulus spending from Washington or bailouts for auto companies or banks, do you see that helping you?

CHUCK THOMAS: No, not really, honestly.

You know, when I called the hall about the power plant, the nuclear power plant that they were planning on building, they said: Oh, it — a couple years. Just hang on.

I can’t. I can’t hang on for two years, sitting around. There’s — I have got to eat. And I got a wife. So…

GWEN IFILL: She is also unemployed.

CHUCK THOMAS: She is. She is.

So, you know, I would like the train. I could build trains. I can — I can put lights up anywhere. But I need a job. And I need it today. Or I need school, which is why I’m back in school, to hopefully have a better opportunity for a job. But I can’t wait two years for a power plant, even though I have worked in a nuclear power plant before.

GWEN IFILL: But it’s not going to be online tomorrow.

CHUCK THOMAS: No.

GWEN IFILL: How about that for you, Jennifer Orr-Bryan? Do you hear — when you hear these solutions out of Washington, does it seem to work for you?

JENNIFER ORR-BRYAN: Not for me right now. I’m looking into all the possibilities.

And I am applying to the schools also to go back to school. I mean, I’m looking into homeland security now, I mean, custom service. So, all of a sudden, I’m going custom service to homeland security, because I feel I still have to — it would enhance my field and it would — it’s a change, but it’s something that I feel will work, and, hopefully, that there’s a need there. And I’m looking in that direction and to take some classes there.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we wish you all the best in all of your efforts.

Norm Stephens, Jennifer Orr-Bryan, Chuck Thomas, and Holly Tomlin, thank you all very much.

NORM STEPHENS: Thank you.

CHUCK THOMAS: Thank you.

HOLLY TOMLIN: Thank you.