April 22, 2009 -- Scott Hoover is one lucky guy.
In the depths of the worst recession since the Great Depression, he managed to beat out nearly 1,400 others for a job.
Talk about some long odds.
"It was pretty nerve-racking to think of that amount of competition and all the highly-qualified individuals that were applying for the job," Hoover said. "I had hoped but I didn't want to get my hopes up too high."
Earlier this year, the city of Tacoma, Wash. advertised an opening for a water and electricity meter reader in its utility department. Applications immediately started to flood the utility. More than 100 a day were submitted. All these people would need to take civil service tests.
Almost immediately, customer service supervisor Mike Sorum said, "we knew we were going to need a bigger building."
Instead of the local veterans hall, which can hold up to 200, the utility turned to the Tacoma Dome Exhibition Hall, a much larger space that also required the rental of tables and chairs. Job seekers had to pay $8 to park. The utility did not respond to requests about the cost of renting the hall, but the space can rent out for up to $15,000 a day, plus another $3,000 to use the parking lot.
The job pays $37,000 to $49,000 a year. That means the city might have spent almost six months' salary on its search. That's a lot of effort just to fill one job.
"It is," Sorum said. "We do these tests about every two years and the numbers fluctuate depending on the economy obviously."
Two years ago the utility only had 600 applicants.
It is a scene being played out all across the country and job fairs are swamped by those looking for employment.
Since the recession began in December 2007, 5.1 million American jobs have been lost, including 3.3 million in just the last five months. March alone saw 663,000 jobs cut.
In Tacoma, Sorum and the other employees in charge of filling the position started preparing to weed through the applicants. First came the exam. Anybody who had a high-school diploma and at least one year of general customer-service experience was allowed to test. That was all but 100 of the applicants.
Ultimately about 800 people showed up for either the morning or afternoon testing sessions.
"There were a lot of people commenting on the number of people and the odds of actually getting this one position," Sorum said. "It does seem like a lot to go through, but it is a civil service position and it is an entry-level position so the minimum requirements are fairly basic and everybody that qualifies, we give the opportunity."
The former holder of the job quit to become a stay-at-home mom.
Every type of worker applied for the position: restaurant workers, former managers at technology companies and even some former firefighters.
"The applicants were from just about every profession that you could think of," Sorum said. "A lot of them had just recently lost their positions due to layoffs."
Meter reader jobs start at $37,000 a year for temporary workers and go up to $49,000 a year plus benefits. The job involves walking from house to house and reading electric and water meters. It can involve up to 14 miles of walking a day.
In the end, Sorum interviewed the 27 people with the top scores, including Hoover, who had the highest. The father of three did have a little practice: Hoover has spent the last 10 months doing the job on a temporary basis.
"It didn't give me any more of an advantage than anybody else because I had to go through the same process and start off from square one," he said.
After the testing and the interview, he then waited. Then one morning earlier this month, Sorum told him he had the job.
"After I closed my mouth, it took a few seconds for it to sink in. I was really shocked," Hoover said. "I just couldn't believe that I was the one who was chosen. I really thanked my stars."
Five other people also got temporary jobs for the summer to fill in gaps in vacation schedules.