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StarBulletin.com

Jobless aim for Target


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POSTED: Friday, May 15, 2009

When Emmanuel Verdugo moved to the Big Island four years ago, there was too much work. He earned about $25 an hour installing tile and flooring in multimillion-dollar mansions, plus all the overtime and side jobs he could handle.

“;It was booming. I thought it was going to last forever,”; he said.

Times have changed.

The 39-year-old Verdugo, of Kealakekua, has been unable to find a job since being laid off a year ago, and he's not alone. Verdugo was among hundreds in line at a job fair yesterday for the island's new Target store.

While Hawaii's overall unemployment rate is still lower than most of the country, the rate on the Big Island has soared in the past year, with heavy impact from the sharp drop-off in tourism and construction resulting from the nation's deepening recession.

“;It's been hard keeping up with bills,”; he said. “;There's nothing out there. Nothing.”;

The island's jobless rate hit 10.2 percent in March, which is among the highest in the state, and more than the national average. It's a staggering change from a year ago when it was just 4 percent, which is considered by economists as “;full employment.”;

The statewide jobless rate is 7.1 percent, the highest mark in more than three decades.

Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi doesn't sugarcoat the situation.

“;We're seeing significant unemployment in our communities,”; he said in a telephone interview.

“;There's no hiding, dismissing or minimizing the challenging economic situation we're facing.

“;It's not about numbers and economic data; it's about real people's lives.”;

Kenoi, who took office in December, met yesterday with leaders of labor, hotels and construction to address the growing unemployment problem. He said it's going to take a collaborative effort to get through these times.

Kenoi is working to boost the local economy by using federal stimulus funds, streamlining the permitting process for construction jobs that are ready to go, expanding higher education and promoting programs to draw more tourists.

“;We have to get people here to our island,”; Kenoi said. “;We have to market and brand our island to set us apart.”;

Six of the top 10 employers on the Big Island are hotels.

With his unemployment benefits running out soon, Verdugo is looking for anything he can get. So are thousands on this vast island known for its lava-spewing volcano, premium Kona coffee and sprawling resorts.

At the Target job line, a banner read, “;See yourself in red.”;

Applicants, however, are looking for some green.

People lined up as early as 5 a.m. yesterday at the Keauhou Convention Center in hopes of securing one of the 300 jobs that Target wants to fill for the island's first location, which is slated to open in July in Kona.

Thousands of applications are expected to be submitted in the four-day event. More than 1,000 applications were filed online before the event. The numbers are impressive considering there are only 175,000 residents.

“;Good lord willing, I'm going to be one of them,”; Verdugo said.

Target's event drew people of all ages and professional backgrounds.

Roger Thomas, Target's store team leader, said he was concerned 10 months ago that the company couldn't find or hire enough employees because of the labor shortage.

Today, Target has its pick of qualified workers.

“;I couldn't think of a better time to be opening up our store here,”; he said. “;Every cloud has a silver lining.”;