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Oldsmar newest hot spot for jobs

Three new projects will bring 880 positions. The big question: Will businesses be able to fill them?

By ED QUIOCO

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 13, 2000


OLDSMAR -- Wanted: About 880 workers for jobs at the top of Old Tampa Bay ranging from popcorn and soda sales to insurance claims processing and customer service.

Thanks to a booming economy and three projects coming soon, this town of 10,000 that not so long ago was a wide place in the road on the way to bigger cities has become a job-seeker's paradise.

"Oldsmar is the hot spot right now," said Kevin Gartland, executive director of the Greater Oldsmar Chamber of Commerce. "And I don't expect it to slow down unless the economy takes a nose dive. And I don't see that happening."

A 20-screen American Multi-Cinema theater complex seeking 100 employees will open in March at the Woodlands Square shopping center. Pinellas County's first Wal-Mart supercenter will be under construction by the end of this year on Tampa Road and will need 450 employees when it opens. And construction of a claims processing center for Uniprise, a national health care services provider, will begin this month. The company will bring 360 of its workers from other locations and will need 330 new employees.

Where will they get so many new workers in a town so small?

Wal-Mart, AMC and Uniprise all hope to draw workers from outside the town, especially since existing companies in Oldsmar's industrial and manufacturing areas already are having trouble finding enough workers.

In fact, the Oldsmar-area labor market is so tight that new express bus routes are being planned to bring former welfare recipients in Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties to Oldsmar to fill those manufacturing jobs.

"Oldsmar is happening," said Rich Hickman, senior marketing manager at the Pinellas County Economic Development department. "Actually, it is happening all over the county but it's more visible in Oldsmar because it is happening now and it hasn't been happening in the past."

Economic experts and officials from AMC, Wal-Mart and Uniprise, an entity of UnitedHealth Group, say they expect that despite the tight labor market and the country's lowest unemployment rate in 30 years, the jobs won't go unfilled.

One of the advantages of building in the Oldsmar area is the location near the borders of Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties. Businesses can draw customers and employees from the three counties, said David Denslow, a University of Florida economics professor and policy director of the school's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

Oldsmar's recent major road improvements make it easier for employees to get to jobs in the area and also make the town more attractive for businesses, Denslow said.

"Oldsmar really does have a large area to draw from," Denslow said. "I think it is a large enough labor market that it should be feasible to get that many people working."

Hickman said businesses and employees are drawn to the area for the same reasons tourists make the trip: sunshine and beaches, a high quality of life and a lower cost of living.

"The work force in the Tampa Bay area is an evolving community," Hickman said. "An employer wants to go where employees want to be and employees want to be in an area that they can enjoy."

AMC is already hiring and training workers for its grand opening March 17. The theater initially will employ 100 workers, but that probably will increase to more than 130 later, said Roland Palot, managing director of the AMC Woodlands 20.

Most of the theater jobs will be part time. New hires will get about 30 hours of paid training and will be paid $6.25 to $7 an hour. AMC is looking for high school and college students, retirees and people who want to supplement their income with a second job.

The tight labor market will make it challenging for the theater to hire employees, said Brenda Nolte, AMC spokeswoman. "We classified the labor market of that particular location as a do-able challenge."

The theater's fun environment, flexible hours and perks such as free movies for employees and their families, as well as opportunities for advancement, will help draw workers despite the record low unemployment, she believes.

"Most of our senior management in operations come from these staff positions," Nolte said. "And this is a fun environment. It's not like working in a dentist's office. People want to come to our facilities."

Wal-Mart is dealing with a tight labor market at store openings throughout the country, said Keith Morris, community affairs director for the retail giant. The company has learned that it needs to start early so there is plenty of time to find workers.

Wal-Mart also will use media advertisements and local chambers of commerce to get the word out about jobs, Morris said.

"As long as we plan long in advance and we have a plan going into the market, we haven't experienced any delays in opening any stores because we didn't have staff," Morris said.

Most of the employees will be full time, Morris said. The company still has not set the wages for the Oldsmar store because that is determined by a local wage survey done about six months before the store opens.

"Based on what (competitors) are paying we set the wages at or above that to attract the most interest that we can," Morris said.

Morris said Wal-Mart's name recognition, employee benefits package including stock purchase incentives, and advancement opportunities will attract employees.

Construction on the $8-million supercenter is expected to take 10 to 12 months.

Uniprise's plans for a 103,000-square-foot claims processing center will require the most skilled workers of the three projects. Uniprise officials say that based on the company's experience in the area -- it has operations in Tampa and Clearwater -- it will be able to find the 330 workers needed.

"When we looked at the area, we saw a strong labor pool, and the experiences we had both in Tampa and in Clearwater have been very positive," said Sally Sidwell, Uniprise regional vice president. "We have not had high turnover and the employees we have hired . . . have done an awesome, awesome job. We feel that there is more of that out there and we feel we can tap into that."

Most of Uniprise's new employees will work in customer service or claims processing. Uniprise already is hiring for the new positions. Construction is expected to begin this month and be completed in November.

Uniprise's employee benefits package, room for career advancement and extensive training -- eight to 10 weeks in a classroom setting -- will attract workers, Sidwell predicted.

"Take someone who may be in the hospitality industry, because that is very big in that area, they obviously have customer service skills but maybe because of the job's hours or wages, they would want to make the change and move to an office environment like ours," Sidwell said. "I think there are some folks out there who will want to make the change."

Roger Pavlik, director of leasing for the Tri-County Business Park on Race Track Road, said Uniprise's move to Oldsmar will benefit Oldsmar-area workers because other employers will beef up their wages and benefits packages to retain employees. The Tri-County Business Park has 120 companies and 3,500 employees.

"I don't think those three companies will have a problem getting employees because they are paying wages people will come to," Pavlik said. "Bottom line is employees in the Oldsmar market will be the winners with Uniprise, Wal-Mart and AMC because the standards will be higher and the quality of employee benefits will be better to attract good employees. Businesses in the market now will have to improve their standards."

Stuart Rogel, chief executive of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional economic development alliance, said all three of the companies are big-time players that would not move into an area unless they felt they could find the workers they need.

"Each company is very smart and very sophisticated," Rogel said. "Their number one priority is the labor force because that's the biggest cost they have. I am certain that they have done their due diligence that Oldsmar is the appropriate location for their facility."

With more and more businesses moving into the area and the unemployment rate so low, local officials are creating programs aimed at helping companies find employees. New bus routes and community college programs to train workers for specialized industries are just two ways Pinellas County is helping companies cope, said Hickman with the Pinellas County Economic Development department.

"We are attracting and training as rapidly as we can to meet the needs of our existing business enterprises," Hickman said. "We have a monumental challenge to meet the work force needs, and believe me, there is a lot of effort to meet that need."

Gartland said the three projects and their employees will have a tremendous impact on the Oldsmar area. He expects that businesses such as fast food restaurants and automobile service centers will spring up to take advantage of the new customer base. People have a tendency to shop, eat and get their cars repaired close to where they work, he said.

"No doubt about it, Oldsmar has three big drivers right now," Gartland said. "And there are more on the way."

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