About 1,500 service members and veterans jammed Fort Jackson’s Solomon Center on Tuesday for a job fair that officials said was one of the largest for the national Hiring Our Heroes program.
Sponsored by the U.S. and Greater Columbia chambers of commerce, the fair provided job opportunities for service members, many of whom are being forced out of the military because of budget cutbacks.
“This is huge,” said Ross Cohen of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “It’s stunning to feel the energy in this room.”
The U.S. chamber has held 102 such job fairs across the nation. Another 400 are planned over the next two years. They have been held in cities as large as New York and Los Angeles, and as small as Yankton, S.D., and Longmont, Colo., drawing from 200 to 1,500 job seekers.
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Cohen said this was one of the largest, because it was held on an Army installation and because it had strong backing from the political, military and business communities. On hand were Gov. Nikki Haley, Fort Jackson commander Maj. Gen. James “Mike” Milano, Greater Columbia chamber chief executive Ike McLeese and other dignitaries.
“Everybody from the public and private sectors was firing on all cylinders,” said Cohen, himself a former Army paratrooper who served in Afghanistan.
Haley gave a brief speech, then spent about a half hour shaking hands and posing for pictures with service members, veterans and employers.
“I want you to know your state is here for you,” she said. “You have served us. Now we want to serve you.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of unemployment for military veterans increased to 13.3 percent in June 2011 from 11.5 percent a year earlier – well above the state or national jobless rates. These numbers will increase as service members return from Iraq and Afghanistan during the next five years.
On Tuesday at Fort Jackson, there were 94 employers represented — from police departments to spaghetti manufacturers. They were jammed into a space originally planned to handle 85. More were on a waiting list, McLeese said.
“We kept configuring things,” said McLeese, who also serves as a civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army. “People are walking out of here with jobs.”
Nicolas Relacion, a recruiter for Verizon, said veterans usually are good hires for his company because of their discipline and loyalty.
“They have no problem working a 12-hour shift, where civilians want to put in their eight hours and go home,” he said. “They can work in austere environments and not complain about the working conditions.”
Sgt. First Class Fritz Hodges of Moncks Corner, who is currently stationed at Fort Jackson, plans to retire in October to spend more time with his wife and three children.
He wants to work for an ROTC program, but was perusing the booths at Tuesday’s job fair in case that scenario doesn’t play out.
He has attended several job fairs, “but the good thing about this one is that they are actually hiring,” he said. “A lot of times companies don’t have openings but they want you to apply online.”
Hodges said he was a little worried about finding a job when the unemployment rate in the state was so high, “but I believe God will lead the way.”