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At Silicon Valley job fair, few employers and jobs

Previous job fairs included employers Kaiser Permanente, Southwest Airlines, and Wells Fargo. One this week, though, featured more military recruiters than companies.

In a line that stretched around the building, hopefuls queue up for free resume advice at a job fair at the San Mateo Expo Center on Wednesday. Declan McCullagh/CNET Networks

SAN MATEO, Calif.--The advertisement for the job fair boasted a list of desirable employers, including Kaiser Permanente, Southwest Airlines, and Wells Fargo Bank.

But when hopeful Silicon Valley job-seekers arrived at the San Mateo Expo Center here Wednesday, they found booths for the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, and the Army National Guard. The only non-government, non-education, non-security company to appear was Verizon, which was looking for sales representatives to work in local retail stores--previous retail sales experience required.

It turns out that the ad included fine print. It said the companies listed were "previous participating employers."

The reason for the remarkably low corporate turnout, according to an employee of the event's organizer, Jobs & Careers Newspaper, is that companies aren't hiring and that they've whacked the hiring staff and recruiters who would usually show up at events like this.

The shrinking number of prospective employers comes as the ranks of the unemployed are growing: San Mateo-based Jobs & Careers Newspaper expected about 600 people. By 2:45 p.m., according to its estimates, about 2,000 showed up.

A sergeant in the Army National Guard was on the phone with a probation officer about a possible recruit. The fellow had stopped by the booth a few minutes before to express interest but was worried his criminal history would get in the way. That may not be a problem, but it's hard to know for sure: the recruiter declined to be interviewed for this article.

The for-profit University of Phoenix arranged for a booth in the corner in hopes that people would be willing to pay to go back to school to finish a degree or add another one. Instead, people who stopped by just wanted a job.

The three people sitting behind the Verizon booth pointed to a stack of resumes a few inches high that applicants had left during the day. The pile was sitting on a large cardboard box--the size that photocopier paper comes in--with many more resumes inside.

The only non-government, non-education, non-security company to appear at this job fair was Verizon. The U.S. military had three separate recruiting booths. Declan McCullagh/CNET Networks

Still, one Verizon representative said that not many applicants appeared to have the necessary background in retail sales. "A manager has certain sales responsibilities and performance goals that have to be met," he said.

No wonder, then, that the longest lines formed in front of two adjacent booths: one offering free resume critiques and the other for a California state office called the Employment Development Department, which offers the CalJOBS matchmaking service and, perhaps more importantly, unemployment benefits. At some points in the day, those queues snaked out the door and around the building.

San Mateo could be called the northern border of Silicon Valley. Oracle's world headquarters is less than four miles away in Redwood City, which is also home to Electronic Arts, PDI/DreamWorks, Informatica, mobile software firm Openwave, and Web applications provider Broadvision. YouTube and are to the north, while most other large employers are south.

According to state figures (PDF), California's unemployment rate was 9.3 percent in December, a substantial jump from 8.4 percent a month earlier and 5.9 percent a year earlier. About 1,732,000 people in California were unemployed, up by 653,000 a year before.

By historic standards, these figures aren't entirely dismal; national unemployment hit 10.8 percent in 1982 and was far higher during the Great Depression. But the figures are hardly encouraging amid a sharp, deep recession that's accompanied by shrinking home values.

Unlike the dot-com bubble a decade ago, Silicon Valley isn't as hard-hit as Wall Street has been. And until the end of 2008, it almost seemed to be weathering the recession. Now it looks like the worst is still to come: Asia's economies are faltering, and high-tech jobs fell by 1.3 percent from December 2007 to December 2008. Another Silicon Valley company, flash memory maker Spansion, just laid off 3,000 people, or 35 percent of its workforce.

Silicon Valley residents may need to get used to more job fairs with more applicants than openings.