ALBANY -- A day after B.J. Fletcher issued a challenge to business owners in and around Albany to bring on one additional employee in an article that appeared in the Nov. 13 edition of The Albany Herald, the phone calls started coming in.
There were people calling to thank Fletcher and to offer their support. But, more importantly, there were business owners -- large and small -- who proclaimed they were taking the general manager of Ole Times Country Buffet up on her challenge.
"I couldn't believe it ... There were people calling me and telling me they didn't really need help at this time but they were going to hire on someone to try and help a family in Albany," Fletcher said. "It just kind of took off."
The numbers were small at first as Taylor's Market, Fast Copy, Moe's, Adams Exterminators, The Albany Herald, Shug'z House of Bar-B-Que and Blues, Then and Now, Hadden's Flowers, Zaxby's, Aaron's, Green Clippers, Ryan's Buffet and other businesses called to say they were adding one or two or three employees.
Then, suddenly, calls started coming in from some of the area's larger employers: Miller/Coors, Coats & Clark, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, Sam's Club. And the numbers got bigger ... 20 here, 21 there, 25 more there.
Now Fletcher's job barometer, which reflects her goal of 500 new jobs by the end of the year, is at the 62 percent mark and climbing. If your math is a little fuzzy, that's more than 300 jobs in an area with an 11 percent unemployment rate.
"I run across people just about everywhere I go who tell me to add one or two jobs to the list," Fletcher said Tuesday. "And I know there are other folks out there who have hired folks but haven't called us. It's just been this remarkable grassroots movement.
"But to turn this economy around and get people back to work, it's going to take people like us realizing that this is our problem. We can't wait for Atlanta and Washington to come to our aid. This is up to us."
Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital officials concede that new hires in the health care industry are based on need, but that did not stop the hospital from reporting its latest staff additions to Fletcher.
"That was our way of showing our support for what B.J. is doing and showing our support for a need in the community," Phoebe spokesperson Valerie Benton said. "We felt it was important to the community to demonstrate that we are doing our part, too."
Phoebe has, according to Vice President for Human Resources Dave Baranski, added personnel at all levels. And, in perhaps one of the most telling signs of the hunger for jobs in the region, Baranski said he and his staff have sifted through more than 19,000 job applications that have come in over the fiscal year that started in July of 2008.
"In the month of December, we've brought on 23 new people in basically every area of the hospital," Baranski said. "We've added people in everything from administrative positions to groundskeeping to pharmacy technology to financial counseling to LPNs to security. We've added jobs that require minimal training to high technical skills.
"Typically, businesses hold off on hiring during the holidays, but we're not in a position to do that. If we have a need in a service area, we have to deliver. We're holding our breath now as we wait to see how potential new health care legislation will impact us, but our mission will remain the same. We will remain committed to taking care of every patient that comes through our doors."
Of the 23 jobs Phoebe added this month, 19 are full-time, one is part-time, one is as-needed and one is a scholarship position that will become full-time.
Barbara Concilio is one of the full-time workers who has been on the job at Phoebe for a week now. A retired customer service manager who worked with United Distributors in Albany and Atlanta for 20 years, Concilio was brought on by Phoebe as administrative assistant in the hospital's construction management division.
Concilio had been retired for five years when she decided that the sour economy and a desire to get more active were enough to put her back in the work force. She'd been looking for work around three weeks when she heard about the position at Phoebe.
"It's kind of like it was meant to be," Concilio said Wednesday. "I didn't expect to find a job this quick, but it worked out. It hasn't really been tough getting back in the work force, but things are a little different for me now. I was used to being the boss before.
"But it's like riding a bicycle; work's not something you forget how to do."
Samantha Rambo was in the final stages of earning her visual communications degree at Albany Technical College when she got a call from Randy Landers at Fast Copy in Albany. Landers had decided to take Fletcher up on her challenge, and Rambo fit his needs perfectly.
"I don't know a lot about that challenge; all I know is that I've got a great new job," 23-year-old graphic designer Rambo said. "It couldn't have come at a better time for me. There aren't a lot of secure jobs opening up in this field."
Rambo said she had worked at "all kinds of jobs" since she was 16 before a family member noticed her talent and insisted she get into graphic design.
Angie and Ryan Ranew, owners of Shug'z House of Bar-B-Que and Blues in Lee County, had struggled along with others in this rough economy, but that didn't stop them from accepting Fletcher's challenge.
"I saw that story in the paper and found it amazing," Angie Ranew said Tuesday. "We didn't really need to add anyone to our staff, but I squeezed in two part-time workers and one full-time waitress. We did it because we wanted to help others. We believe in sowing seeds and that your good works will come back to you tenfold."
Misty Conger, 26, who had just moved back to Worth County from Washington state with her husband and her 5-year-old daughter, was the receipient of the Ranews' decision. The Congers went to Washington hoping to land tech jobs with Microsoft, but shortly after they arrived the company announced a massive layoff.
"I am so grateful to Angie and Ryan," Conger said. "I was really stressed out that it was Christmastime and I wouldn't have any way to get my baby any of the things she wanted. But Angie said I could work the day shift, and that was perfect. I get home from work just before my daughter gets home from school."
Ryan Ranew said he knew he and his wife had hired the right person when Conger left the restaurant to tell her husband she'd gotten the job.
"I was outside working in the smokeroom, and I saw her come outside," Ranew said. "She literally jumped through the window of their truck -- Dukes of Hazzard style -- to tell her husband the news."
Three hundred new jobs in a recession is an amazing accomplishment, but Fletcher -- who has added six new workers at Ole Times -- says she's not satisfied.
"I still want people to call me (229-439-1600) and let me know if they're adding jobs," she said. "It's going to take those of us willing to reach out on faith to turn this city around. I'm really disappointed in our city leadership -- Where are they spending their money? -- that they're not actively trying to help our people who are hurting.
"We can turn this city around, but it's going to take a great big tent revival. We've got to spread the word: Hire local and shop local. We've got to take care of each other."