As she walked the aisles of Bakersfield's biggest annual job fair Thursday morning, taking note of several "very promising" prospects, Kelli Gilliam grew increasingly confident her five-month unemployment streak would soon come to an end.
At the same time, she was surprised at how many people around her were also looking for work.
"I didn't know there's so many non-working people in Bakersfield," said Gilliam, a 40-year-old medical worker.
Some 2,500 people filed through the Rabobank Convention Center at the 2015 Bakersfield JobFest, according to organizers at the Kern County Department of Human Services.
Aimed at lowering Bakersfield's April 9.9 percent unemployment rate -- well above the nation's 5.5 percent but better than the overall Kern County rate of 11.1 percent -- the event attracted an estimated 150 employers ranging from retailers and fast-food restaurants to manufacturers and branches of the military.
Among the organizations represented at the fair were Aera Energy LLC, Carl's Jr., Caterpillar, Clinica Sierra Vista, DoubleTree by Hilton, Grimmway Enterprises Inc., Houchin Community Blood Bank, Ikea, Interim HealthCare, the Kern County Sheriff's Office, Nike, Starbucks, Taco Bell and Xerox. Many accepted resumes on site, while others referred candidates to job application websites.
In all, there were some 3,100 openings to be filled, some of them part-time, many of them entry-level. And despite the crowds, many job-seekers who showed up Thursday left encouraged.
David Salazar was one of them. Although he already has a job in demolition and recycling, he was hoping to find something in warehousing with a good retirement plan.
He was particularly interested to learn Railex LLC was looking to hire about 40 part-time workers in Delano. A recruiter told him the company might be able to help him renew his forklift driver certificate.
Salazar, a 38-year-old Bakersfield resident, said maybe a job with the company would eventually turn full-time.
"I'm really looking for opportunities for advancement," he said.
Recently laid-off oil worker John Whisler, 63, came to the event in search of just the right warehousing position. While he hadn't found it by 10 a.m., he did come across some good job-hunting advice at a free session for early birds.
"One thing was, not to ask about pay," Whisler said. Another suggestion he remembered was to be careful about the words he used to present himself to employers.
Recruiter Harold Brown, director of operations at Continental Labor & Staffing Resources, said he had spoken with more than 100 job-seekers within an hour of the event's 9 a.m. start. He said many of them were qualified for the roughly 100 manufacturing positions he hoped to fill, either because they had direct experience in the field or they had skills that would "transition over."
Another recruiter, Target Corp. human relations executive Sky Newton, said she heard from people of all ages and walks of life -- people with only high school diplomas to people with college degrees -- asking about the company's many local part-time retail jobs.
"It's extremely diverse," she said of the event's job candidate pool.
Next to her was another Target employment booth, that one hiring not for local stores but about 50 distribution center positions open in Shafter.
Bakersfield resident Mardi Hinse came to the event not to look for work but to help her 43-year-old son find delivery or warehouse work.
"I hope somebody hires him. He's so dependable," she said.
Hinse confided she had nothing else to do Thursday morning and was curious to learn how a job fair works.
"I think it's fantastic," she said.
The next job fair in the county's 2015 JobFest series is set for 9 a.m. to noon June 18 in Delano at Cesar E. Chavez High School, 800 Browning Road.