CHESTER - Former Marine Corps truck driver Mike Smith came to the "Hiring Our Heroes" job fair on Thursday feeling discouraged. He's been out of work for a year.
Army Spc. Jesse Allison came feeling like he's starting over. "Being a single dad, it's hard," he said.
The two men were among about 30 military veterans who attended the "Hiring Our Heroes" job fair at Chester American Legion Post 121 on Thursday. Both said they came away with useful information but no solid job prospects.
Emily Clark Munoz, of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, greets two local job-seekers Thursday at the “Hiring Our Heroes” job fair at Chester American Legion Post 121. The fair, one of many being held around the country, gave military veterans seeking employment a chance to meet with local companies. (Photo by Stephen Huba)
"It just seems like sometimes (employers) back away" from hiring veterans, Allison said. That's especially true of veterans who have been deployed overseas, in Iraq or Afghanistan, he said.
Allison, 43, of East Liverpool, finished his tour of duty in Baghdad in 2010. He currently works part time as a Black Hawk helicopter mechanic for the Army National Guard in Wheeling. For 16 years, he drove a tractor-trailer for a living.
"If I get back into driving, it would have to be something local because of my kids," Allison said.
Smith, 38, of Newell, lost his job at the Horsehead Corp. plant in Monaca, Pa., in September 2011. He figures he's filled out more than 100 employment applications since then, landing only one interview.
Smith served with the Marine Corps from 1993 to 1998, but, when it comes to looking for work, he doesn't see much of an advantage in his veteran status. "As far as skills sets are concerned, the person with more experience is going to get the job," he said.
Smith has been a truck driver, a construction worker and a heavy equipment operator. Although he's collecting unemployment from Pennsylvania, he learned about the Chester job fair through WorkForce West Virginia.
"Hiring Our Heroes" is an initiative of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched in 2011 to help veterans find work. Since then, "Hiring Our Heroes" has hosted more than 200 job fairs resulting in about 10,000 veterans and spouses getting jobs, according to the U.S. Chamber Web site.
Most job fair participants are veterans under the age of 25 - men and women - who served in the enlisted ranks and have had a hard time finding work since leaving the military. Emily Clark Munoz, of the U.S. Chamber's Eastern Region, said the unemployment rate among veterans is 11 percent.
"It's even higher among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans," Munoz said. "We feel that people who took time off to serve their country - that we owe it to them to give them a meaningful career when they leave the service."
The national unemployment rate for August was 8.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the tri-state area, the August unemployment was 7.2 percent for Ohio, 7.5 percent for West Virginia and 8.1 percent for Pennsylvania.
Munoz said the "Hiring Our Heroes" job fairs are not just for veterans - they're for companies that want to take advantage of a "flexible and dynamic" workforce.
Veterans, she said, have the qualities that employers are looking for. "Almost all of them can think under pressure. They're problem-solvers, and they can work as part of a team. They're punctual, they're reliable and they're dependable."
Munoz said she was pleased with the turnout at Thursday's fair. "I feel like we had a lot of quality matches. Employees got a lot of face time with potential employers," she said.
Among those at the Chester fair were Chesapeake Energy, CONSOL Energy Inc., U.S. Bank, Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort, and Lowe's. The Chester fair was billed as having an energy sector focus.
Dressed in his fatigues, Allison said he was encouraged by the "friendly environment" of the job fair and hopes that one of the companies will give him a second look. Smith said he also found it helpful.
"I think it's a really good thing. It helps the veterans get out there to see what's out there for them," Smith said. "I got ideas of what (employers) are looking for and things I need to adjust on their Web sites."