A record 4,121 hopeful job seekers attended Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s 14th annual job fair at the Washington Convention Center on Tuesday.
Unintentionally, the fair came on the heels of some of the worst economic news in three years, including the Standard & Poor’s downgrade of U.S. government debt, the stock market plunge Monday and the rancorous debt-ceiling debate, not to mention the possibility that more federal jobs may be disappearing.
Attendance was up by more than 1,000 from last year’s fair, according to officials. “It’s breaking records, and it’s breaking my heart,” said Norton (D), the District’s representative in the House.
Norton said she had thought the recent economic news would have discouraged people “to the point where they would say, ‘What’s the use?’ ”
Instead, 500 people showed up for the opening at 9:30 a.m., she said, with lines snaking up and down the convention center hallways. Job seekers young and old were dressed in professional attire, résumés in one hand and handouts and fliers from prospective employers in another.
Norton said the numbers show the “great hunger” for jobs in the District.
People meandered around the more than 100 stalls, and the employers ranged from the D.C. Fire and EMS Department to H&R Block.
Lisa Whitaker of Northwest Washington said she was looking for “anything, as long as it’s employment.”
Whitaker has been on the hunt for more than a year. She said that she was hoping to get an interview Tuesday but that none of the meetings she had had led to one.
“It’s just bad,” she said, juggling four canvas bags of applications and fliers as she walked through the crowds.
Whitaker said she might go back to school to prepare for something in the health field because the job prospects might be better. At the moment, she said, finding employment has been slow going.
“It gave me a little hope,” said Crystal Williamson of Southeast Washington, referring to the fair. “I’m not going to say it’s worthless. It’s a little discouraging, but I think that all job fairs are the same.”
Williamson said she has been searching for an entry-level job since 2008. Like most others at the event, she had a stack of papers in one hand. In the other, she had her black high-heel shoes. She had been at the fair for a few hours, she said.
Norton said the recent action to reduce the federal deficit strictly by making spending cuts — and without raising additional revenue — has given people a “feeling of loss.”
“Our self-inflicted wound from the deficit debate played a real role,” she said.
But Norton also said she was surprised by some of the positive attitudes she saw.
Recent college graduate Hannah Slater, 27, who finished an internship in the District a few days ago, said she had some hope of staying in the city and finding a job soon.
“The only thing you can do is stay positive,” she said as she stood in line for information from a booth for the Art Institutes of Washington.
Slater said that she is interested in a career in museum work or teaching but that right now, she’s not picky about finding a job.
“I’m okay with working outside of my field,” she said. “You need to not be afraid of doing other jobs.”
Norton sat in a quiet room with large windows overlooking the busy conference hall down below, and she mentioned at least one benefit of the fair.
“You leave the high-flown analysis we do” in Congress, she said, “and look at real people.”