Job-seeking veterans and spouses gathered at the Palmer House Hilton in downtown Chicago late last month in hopes of finding employment at the Hiring Our Heroes job fair.
Christopher Garza is currently in U.S. Navy and retiring in 13 months. He hadn’t been home to Chicago in months.
“I’m entering a new unknown territory, but with job events like this one, I’m positive I will get a job in no time,” Garza said.
Hiring Our Heroes is a program founded by the U.S Chamber of Commerce Foundation and was launched in March of 2011 as a nationwide initiative to help veterans and military spouses find employment.
“For this event today, we made over 21,000 telephone calls so we could make sure that veterans throughout the Chicago-land area knew that there were going to be employers here today who were ready to hire,” said Jay Rowell, director of Illinois Department of Employment Security.
A hundred booths were set up for employers at the event, and over forty companies were on the waitlist for a spot. Some of the employers present included Fed Ex, Game Stop, CVS, AT&T, Capital One, Hertz, SAP, Wal-Mart, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and many more.
Claudia Valla stood behind the Ryder Truck Rental table waiting to speak with veterans at the fair. She looked forward to collecting resumes during her second year of participating in the Hiring Our Heroes event.
“We’ve had very positive results hiring veterans,” Villa said. “They’re very disciplined and very reliable.”
The fair not only offered opportunities for veterans to meet with employers, but it also provided resume review stations, along with on the spot evaluations and interviews.
Veterans arrived professionally dressed with their resumes in hand, ready to network and apply.
Shawn Lockhart, 22, was offered an on-the-spot interview at the GameStop booth after briefly speaking with the employer and providing his resume.
Lockhart has been enlisted in the service for 3 years now.
The unemployment rate for veterans in 2012 was at 9.6 percent, compared to 7.6 percent of nonveterans, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s not that veterans don’t have the skills to do civilian jobs, but it’s not always an easy transition back to normal life.
Darin Cline, a Navy Veteran who served as a helicopter pilot for 10 years, is now employed with Capital One. He knows the difficulties of finding a job and transitioning back to civilian life after being in the service.
“When you come up in a system and you learn that system, the active duty, you get used to it,” Cline said. “How does a helicopter pilot go to a bank and find work that I can do? I had no idea how that would translate.”
He said that Capital One values problem solving and communication just like a naval officer would, and they provide veterans with mentors because it is not always an easy transition.
“I brought a Navy aircraft into Chicago, and that’s what I knew. It was not alarming or scary,” Cline said. “But for me, getting a cab in Chicago was tough and scary. It’s not what I’ve done. Its new terrain.
Erica Borggren, director of IDVA, an Iraq Army Veteran and Bronze Star recipient, also spoke on the difficulties transitioning back to civilian life.
“It really does feel like a different world,” she said. “I find myself using words and I have to think: ‘Is that a military word I just used, or do they use that in the civilian world?’ because I’d been there since I was 17.”
Mildred Gorte, a middle-aged veteran who was stationed at an air force base in upstate New York during the Vietnam War, has been unemployed since the end of last November.
“You don’t get up in the morning with quite that purpose that you did before,” Gorte said. “Fortunately, I was in a decent financial state, so I haven’t hit that financial hardship yet.”
Gorte said she was overwhelmed at the hiring event, mentioning that it was her first time at a job fair. However, she remains hopeful. “The places that fit my job skills, I’ve been able to talk to,” Gorte said.
Felix Lezama is an unemployed Army veteran who attended the fair. He claimed that the economy is the biggest issue he faces while trying to find a job.
“No body is hiring really, that’s what it comes down to,” Felix said. “And the few jobs that are available are not paying well.”
Hannah Cole and Ashli Teil contributed to this story.