BRADENTON -- As dozens of soon-to-be-laid-off employees circled potential employers looking for job openings, Kathleen Evans waited patiently to speak with someone at Hobart Ground Systems exhibit booth.
Could she qualify or be hired for one of the eight positions the company has open?
The 60-something-year-old inside sales person at Pierce Manufacturing will no longer have a job after March and she's hoping to find employment in the area so she won't have to sell her house and move.
Tuesday afternoon, a large building at Pierce was packed with booths set up by 25 local employers and five educational institutions offering help to 236 employees who will be laid off by Pierce. Layoffs begin Thursday and are staggered through March 21.
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Evans was on vacation when she got the news in late July that her position was being eliminated. The company decided to shut down its Medtec ambulance division it had relocated to Bradenton 18 months before from Goshen, Ind.
"I felt fear at first," Evans said. She knows losing a job at her age means it won't be easy getting an
other one in a still-weak economy. She had transferred to Bradenton from Indiana when the company moved the ambulance division, and has been with the company for nearly nine years.
"The first year was rough, but things were picking up," she said. So Evans was "surprised and very shocked" when she learned the division was being eliminated.
But Evans had only praise for Pierce and its efforts to help her find employment through email referrals to companies hiring and holding the job fair.
"They've been great," she said.
It is the only time that Michael Smart, senior account executive with Suncoast Workforce, can remember an employer in Manatee holding a job fair to try and place its laid-off workers.
"They've gone above and beyond," he said. "They spent $1,600 on this event." The county's Economic Development Corp. as well as Suncoast Workforce were both involved in the event.
John Daggett, spokesman for parent company Oshkosh Corp., said the company recently held a job fair at its Oshkosh, Wis. plant for workers being laid off there.
"It's just something we do," he said. "We understand that a decision like this will impact employees and their families, and we try and help diminish that impact as much as we can."
Pierce qualified for up to $1.44 million in economic development incentives to create up to 200 jobs and relocate the ambulance division in 2011.
Daggett said the company received around $700,000 in state and county economic incentive funds to create a certain number of jobs at a certain pay scale over a five-year period.
"I believe we exceeded our requirements by quite a bit for 2011 and 2012," he said. The remainder of the funds -- paid upfront -- for the remaining three years will need to be repaid by the company, he said, since the division is being closed down.
Sharon Hillstrom, president and CEO of the Manatee Economic Development Corp., said Pierce approached the county and the state once it knew the workers would be laid off to figure out how the incentives will work since the five-year commitment won't be reached.
Karen Stewart, Manatee County economic development manager, said the amount of incentive funds Pierce will have to return "hasn't been determined yet."
The county awarded Pierce $150,000 as part of the Qualified Target Industries matching grant, $175,000 in a county economic incentive grant and $4,876 in a transportation impact fee incentive.
The company did meet 2011 and 2012 goals, Stewart said.
"The county is currently coordinating with the state" in regards to the Qualified Target Industries funds, she said.
Employers at the event all had job openings and were asked by Pierce to honor employees' layoff dates, which were printed beneath their names on their nametags.
"We asked them to honor our release dates," said Human Resources Director John Jordan. Production on the ambulance line will end in February. No more layoffs are expected, he added.
Jamie Weger, plant manager for Exactech in Manatee, was hoping to find some potential hires with machining skills Tuesday as he answered questions from Pierce employees.
"Our shop is more of a machine shop, so some of their skills could transfer," he said. The company manufactures implant devices.
Forklift operator Jorge Ramirez was hoping to find quick help at the job fair. His last day with Pierce is Jan. 24 and he doesn't have another job yet.
"I applied at Port Manatee but I haven't heard anything," he said as he headed to a booth to fill out an application.