FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. — A year's worth of failed job leads prepared Richard Briggs for anything, including night shifts as a Minnesota State Fair custodian.
For $8.50 an hour, the out-of-work financial analyst vacuums and cleans bathrooms in fairground buildings. Briggs, 38, said he's "something of a curiosity" among his co-workers.
"You know, they don't hire financial analysts to clean the sidewalks," Briggs said.
A crippled economy has sent droves of unemployed and underemployed people to fairs nationwide, with many reporting record numbers of applicants to tear tickets, serve food and clean up after crowds.
Iowa's state fair closed most of its hiring weeks earlier than usual. Colorado's fair is finished hiring but was still getting more than 50 people a day trying to apply as the fair opened last week. In Indiana, about 2,300 people — at least twice as many as usual — applied for 800 open positions.
"And the nice thing about it for us is that we got, I guess you could say, many overqualified candidates," said Andy Klotz, a spokesman for the Indiana State Fair.
In Minnesota, more than 10,000 people applied for the fair's 3,000 jobs. At the same time more people were applying, fair vendors intent on keeping costs down were requesting far fewer employees than in years past.
And, more experienced fair workers were returning. The fair had room for just 1,250 new employees, about one-third the number of last year.
Briggs lives in the Twin Cities suburb of Mendota Heights with his wife and two stepchildren. He lost his job last September, and he's found few openings in the financial sector since. Over dinner in June, his wife suggested he apply for a job at the Fair, which he hadn't attended since childhood.
"It'll get you out of the house, and you'll be busy for 12 straight days," Briggs remembers her saying.
After a visit to the State Fair's employment center, he got an offer. Though the family still has his wife's income as a regulatory analyst, Briggs said his fair paycheck has given their budget "some breathing space."
"We have a mortgage to pay and mouths to feed," he said.
As the fair opened its 12-day run last week, Josh Chaika was working a day shift as a custodian.
Chaika, 27, signed up to work for the first time this year. He has a part-time job for 30 hours a week, but when he saw a newspaper advertisement for fair jobs, he decided to apply because he "just needed the extra cash."
He was surprised when he heard about the size of the waiting list.
"I didn't think it would be that tough," he said.
Jerry Hammer, the general manager of Minnesota's fair, said it's not always like this.
"I've seen other years where we're telling staff to go home and tell your friends and neighbors" workers are needed, he said.
The Minnesota State Fair still attracted a large number of teenagers and 20-somethings. Jessica Schoenleber got a job tearing tickets on one of the fair's parking lots. The 23-year-old from nearby Roseville wanted to make some money before she moves to New Zealand this fall.
"This was more like short-term, high intensity and a lot of fun," Schoenleber said of the job.
The high demand for state fair jobs is occurring at time when attendance is up as more people cut back on travel and look for attractions close to home. Minnesota set a first-day record Thursday with more than 114,000 attendees.
"We seem to be one of those sectors of the economy that we're doing quite well," said Jim Tucker, CEO of the International Association of Fairs and Exhibitions. "Not only are we not down, we're up."
Briggs, the financial analyst-turned-custodian, says he's not ashamed of his new job, even if he seems overqualified.
"It's fun to be outdoors, and it's fun to see the results of your work," Briggs said. "Being a financial analyst, at least in the situation I was in, no matter what kind of report you try to produce ... there was always a way around it, whereas you know when you don't empty the garbage or something."
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