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Consultant copes in 'tin can'

[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
Camilla Yost says goodbye after visiting her stepfather John Hayden. Yost, a computer consultant, sold her home and moved into a mobile home in Apollo Beach after losing her job.

By KRIS HUNDLEY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 8, 2003


APOLLO BEACH -- There is an edge to Camilla Yost's laughter as she invites a visitor into what she calls her tin can.

The single-wide mobile home in Caribbean Isles, a tidy trailer park here, is neat but worn. Yost, a tall woman of Swedish descent, fills the doorways. If she stretched sideways across the living room floor, it seems her fingertips and toes would nearly brush the trailer's plywood-paneled walls.

Yost points out where she's repaired rotted ceilings, added mirrors for the illusion of spaciousness, removed closets to increase living space. She calls a prefab utility shed on the carport the penthouse. A rusted 1992 Buick station wagon with 145,000 miles hogs the rest of the concrete apron.

Yost and her possessions have been jammed into this trailer for 18 months, ever since she lost her job making more than $70,000 a year as an independent computer consultant for GTE Technical Services Inc. in Tampa. Within a month of getting her pink slip in June 2001, Yost sold her spacious four-bedroom home with pool, dock and hot tub about a mile away. She knew instantly that an unemployment check of $275 a week wouldn't go far toward meeting home expenses of $3,000 a month.

Her 81-year-old parents, who had been living with her for about a year, had to find a place of their own in Sun City Center. Yost, still in debt on her mortgage after the sale, found the dilapidated trailer for $19,000 and borrowed money for closing costs. Two truckloads of belongings went to auction; the rest is stuffed into the aluminum-sided trailer on St. Anne's Circle.

Yost, who has been a mainframe programmer for 32 years, mostly as an independent contractor, never thought finding a new job would be easy. But she never dreamed it would be this hard.

The Labor Department reported Friday that the national unemployment rate dropped to 5.7 percent in January, but the new jobs were concentrated in stores and restaurants. The most recent report on Florida's unemployment rate showed it at 5.3 percent in December.

Yost has sent out hundreds of resumes, posted her skills on dozens of online job boards, networked with every headhunter and former colleague whose phone numbers and e-mail addresses are stored in the two Palm Pilots tucked in her purse.

"From most places, there is total silence," she said, shaking her neatly cropped cap of brown hair. "They totally blow you off."

She had one interview in Maitland, to work on a contract in Brazil using a software she's used in the past.

"I thought I'd be perfect, but they said no, it wouldn't be a good fit," she said, leaving her to wonder if someone's girlfriend or an inside candidate got the job.

To update her skills, Yost took a state-funded course for Microsoft certification. "There were all these young Turks in class who called me a dinosaur," said Yost, 58. "It was somewhat intimidating."

Though she still needs to take the final tests to get her Microsoft-certified software developer designation, Yost is procrastinating. She rationalizes that there are no openings for those jobs now. And when there are, she said, "friends of friends will get hired first."

Yost has tapped every contact she's made in the tech business, but many are in the same position she is. One headhunter, once swamped with work, is operating out of her home. A friend who landed a job recently at Household International in Brandon told her of seven openings at the lending company. Yost sent in seven applications, but has heard nothing yet.

Aware that $60,000-a-year jobs are scarce, Yost has lowered her expectations. She's taken skill tests at several call centers in Tampa, only to be told she's overqualified and would never last. "I love that one," she said. "I tell them I'd even work for free to prove I can do the job, but they just laugh."

Yost applied to be a bus driver with Pinellas County Transit Authority, only to be told the class is full. She's knocked on doors of small businesses in every strip center in Apollo Beach. That landed a barter deal with a Japanese restaurant: trading photos and menu design for sushi. "I really will work for food," Yost said. "But I can't pay my utilities with sushi."

She landed one full-time job. Last month she was hired at AOL's call center in Tampa. Training class started on a Monday. On Tuesday, an AOL official canceled the class, Yost said, because of a slowdown in call volume.

"I'm not a quitter," she said. "But it sure is tempting to quit."

She sold two jet skis from her previous life last summer, but that money is depleted. Unemployment checks are long gone. Ditto the retirement account, insurance policy and long-term care plans. Yost said her mother occasionally asks to borrow the few pieces of good jewelry she's tucked away. "I think she does it just to check that I haven't pawned them," Yost said.

Yost filed personal bankruptcy in September; her only outstanding debt, which she has promised to pay to keep family peace, is $22,000 to her son's father-in-law. Yost has swallowed hard and applied for food stamps and medical help from Hillsborough County, a process she calls demeaning but unavoidable.

Her 37-year-old son, who works for Hewlett Packard in California, phones with unwanted advice that grates on this single mother who raised two children alone.

"He thinks I have a defeatist attitude," she said, her eyes tearing behind gold-rimmed glasses. "I guess I sort of do."

After long months of aggressively shoving her resume into the ring and getting no response, Yost said she's retreated. She's afraid to leave her cell phone or computer, for fear a job offer will materialize in her absence. She's pulled away from friends in the work force, tired of having to explain why she's still jobless. Even gathering with other unemployed techies leaves her pained.

"It's hopeful and hopeless at the same time," she said of her occasional networking sessions at the county's WorkForce office. "They have the same deer in the headlights look, like 'What did I do to deserve this?"'

Grasping for hope, Yost said e-mails and conversations with her contacts in the tech world -- what she calls the jungle drums -- make her think the job market for experienced programmers is warming up a bit. Her eyes light up when she talks about the marvels of technology she's seen emerge during her career.

"I just love being alive now, the technology is so cool," said Yost, who has the pair of Palms, two computers, a cell phone and three TVs. "I am a curable optimist."

Then she bursts into an edgy laugh that nearly sounds like a sob.

-- Kris Hundley can be reached at hundley@sptimes.com or (727)892-2996.

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