When Spartanburg resident Joseph Cooney retired from the United States Navy last year, he expected he would find a job and enjoy a quiet civilian life alongside his wife and their two young children.
But the job opportunities were scarce in his hometown. He found it difficult to matching his former military skills with positions that employers were offering.
His first opportunity took him to Covington, Va., more than 300 miles away from his family. He recently decided that it was time for a change.
"We couldn't sell our house and it was difficult being away from my family," said Cooney, who joined the Navy in 1990 and worked his way up to the rank of chief aboard the USS Nimitz super carrier. "I made the decision to come home and try to find something here."
On Thursday, Cooney joined more than 100 of his fellow veterans and military spouses struggling to find work in a tough job market at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Hiring Our Heroes job fair in the National Guard Armory at the University of South Carolina Upstate.
The event gave jobseekers the opportunity to meet face-to-face with about 35 local employers who were looking to fill about 150 jobs, according to Ernie Lombardi, Southeast Regional Associate for the U.S. Chamber and a Marine veteran.
Cooney said he left the job fair with renewed optimism and a clearer sense of purpose.
"I got some good leads and I'm hopeful of a couple calls, but I can't really be worried about that right now," Cooney said. "The bills don't get paid by waiting around."
The U.S. Chamber launched the national campaign in March 2011 with the help of the National Chamber Foundation and Capital One, to encourage businesses across the country to hire 500,000 veterans and military spouses by the end of 2014.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate for veterans was 8.3 percent in 2011.
Among veterans who served in the military since 2001, the rate was 12 percent for men and 12.4 percent for women. For male veterans ages 18 to 24, the rate was 29.1 percent last year, compared to 17.6 percent among their nonveteran peers, BLS said.
Thursday's event was hosted in partnership with the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce, Spartanburg mayor's office, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Labor's Veterans' Employment and Training Service, the American Legion, the S.C. Committee of Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, S.C. Works and other local entities.
"We've had some confirmed hires today," Lombardi said. "The veterans and employers are all having a good time. Everything went smoothly. I want to thank all of the organizations that helped us out today with the job fair. Overall, I'd say it was very successful."
Employers said they met with a number of prospects and were encouraged by the turnout at the event. Deborah Coggins, human resources representative for Dollar General Inc.'s Jonesville Distribution Center, sat at a table behind a stack of freshly-inked applications.
"I've got at least five good applicants for a warehouse supervisor position," Coggins said. "Everyone seems extremely eager to work It feels good. At Dollar General, this is what we're all about. I was extremely thrilled to meet with our heroes who have sacrificed so much for us."
Another Hiring Our Heroes job fair will be held in Rock Hill soon. Coggins said she plans to attend that event as well.
Angela Carman, a recruiter with Pinnacle Staffing, said she was also able to find some good applicants. "This is a great service to our veterans who have done great service for us," Carman said.
Former U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Gerald Williams, 51, of Spartanburg, said he was glad to be at a job fair that was tailored for veterans and he didn't feel lost in the crowd.
"I think it's a good thing that they (employers) came out for us," Williams said. "I found some really good prospects. It's nice to have their support and the opportunity to meet them in person."