Job Fairs Help Iraq, Afghan War Veterans

fromWUOT

The unemployment rate dropped to 8.5 percent last month. But veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars still find it difficult to get hired. The unemployment rate for them is above 13 percent. For the past year, business leaders have held a series of job fairs across the country to try to help former service members land work.

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In his State of the Union address, President Obama said the U.S. should enlist its veterans to help rebuild the country. For thousands of out-of-work former military personnel, that would be welcome.

Even as the nation's unemployment rate fell last month, jobless rates for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan remained much higher: 13 percent. Today, job fairs will open in Louisiana and Colorado to try to connect veterans and their families with employers. Brandon Hollingsworth of member station WUOT went to such a job fair earlier this week in Tennessee.

BRANDON HOLLINGSWORTH, BYLINE: The main ballroom of the Knoxville Convention Center is crowded with men and women, some in uniform or wearing military-themed shirts and jackets, while others sport suits and ties. They peruse booths for area businesses, colleges and universities. Miles Shope is 31 and spent four years in the Army. In the year-and-a-half since he's been back from Iraq, he's held down a few construction jobs. But it's not steady work.

MILES SHOPE: I get frustrated, because I don't have time in the private sector to really back up, you know, what I can do. Sometimes that hurts.

HOLLINGSWORTH: Shope is thinking about going back to college to work in telecommunications, his specialty in the Army.

Last month, about a quarter-million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were actively looking for work, and they were going up against millions of civilians who lost jobs during the recession. It's a simple equation: Too many people for not nearly enough jobs. And for those returning veterans, there are even taller barriers to cross.

ERIC DAUGHERTY: I get turned down a lot. And they'll even be honest and tell me: The reason we can't hire you is because we fear the attitude that you'll have in the job.

HOLLINGSWORTH: This is Eric Daugherty, a 27-year-old Iraq war Army vet.

DAUGHERTY: They're scared of being angry. And if something happens or a situation comes up that I get mad that I'm going to lose control and start killing everybody, as if I was in a scene in Iraq.

HOLLINGSWORTH: Daugherty's girlfriend, Amanda Bunch, came to the job fair, too. She hasn't served overseas, but she is in the military.

AMANDA BUNCH: I have also been looking for jobs, as well, but I haven't had the same problems that he's had with the whole combat zone thing, you know. They actually look at my experience, and it's a good thing for me.

HOLLINGSWORTH: Manning one of the job booths is Ken Slaven. He's an Army vet who now runs an auto glass repair business. He says he's here to give fellow service members a chance other companies won't.

KEN SLAVEN: They may not have that experience that you're looking for. But if you've got someone capable of teaching them, they'll learn it. They'll expound on it, and they'll take it to the next level. And they'll do what they've got to do to get the job done.

HOLLINGSWORTH: That's a good description of Eric Daugherty. He says he isn't looking just for a paycheck, but stability.

DAUGHERTY: I'm not worried where I'm going to be at in the next two weeks. I'm worried where I'm going to be at when I'm 60 years old. I know I can get a job and live week-to-week, but I want to have a career out of it.

HOLLINGSWORTH: Worrying about establishing a career can also hurt military spouses. Tracy Carnette was here, pushing a stroller with her two young children. She went to nursing school, but can't promise hospitals a long-term commitment, because the family moves around as her husband gets re-assigned.

TRACY CARNETTE: I worked hard for my degree. And I really, you know, I love staying home with my girls. But I really want to use it, you know?

HOLLINGSWORTH: These job fairs, called Hire Our Heroes, are sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The group has held almost 100 around the country since last March. Jonathan Williams is with the Tennessee Veterans Business Association, an event co-sponsor.

JONATHAN WILLIAMS: Maybe they get into college. Maybe they find a job, or maybe they get the opportunity to start a business. Maybe they're walking through here and an idea sparks them and says: You know what? I can do this. So we're here to help.

HOLLINGSWORTH: Organizers say they have no solid numbers on how these jobs fairs help unemployed veterans and spouses. But there are success stories, enough to keep the fairs going.

For NPR News, I'm Brandon Hollingsworth in Knoxville, Tennessee.

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