BY FRANCINE KNOWLES
Brad Watson (left) helps Anthony Pacelli of Elmhurst with his job interview skills at a job fair for vets at the Conrad Hilton. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times
Alma Nick is well aware of what it’s like to work in a war zone. Today the 29-year-old Iraq War veteran is facing a new challenge — finding employment in civilian life at a time when the jobless rate remains high for many.
But it’s a challenge she and fellow military veterans are equipped to successfully tackle, contends Nick who was among roughly 1,000 veterans who participated in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s veterans’ job fair at the Hilton Chicago Wednesday.
The chamber last year launched the Hiring Our Heroes program, which held more than 120 hiring fairs nationally, helping roughly 9,000 veterans and their spouses find jobs by connecting them with employers and assisting them in improving their resumes and interviewing skills.
This year, as tens of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seek to transition into civilian jobs, the chamber will host 400 such fairs across the country. The chamber in partnership with Capital One has a goal of helping 500,000 veterans find jobs this year.
Hainesville resident Nick, who held personnel management and training positions during her 11-year stint in the Navy, is hoping to land a job in human resources. She holds a B.S. in workforce education from Southern Illinois University.
“The majority of us have leadership skills and we’re responsible,” Nick said in citing veterans’ assets, which she said employers should desire.
Thirty-year-old Robby Ragos, a representative of Lisle-based Navistar International Corp., one of 135 employers who participated in the job fair Wednesday, echoed Nick’s sentiment.
Ragos gave Nick and other veterans input on their resumes and engaged in mock interviews with job fair attendees. Last year he was in their shoes, seeking work after having served in Afghanistan as a section leader for an infantry platoon.
“I tried to get a job and couldn’t find anything,” said Ragos, who serves in the Illinois Army National Guard, holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and applied for 40 to 50 positions.
He was hired by Navistar after meeting representatives at a Hiring Our Heroes job fair last year and now works as a government property administrator at the company.
At Navistar, which makes commercial and military vehicles and engines, roughly 10 percent of its roughly 15,000 workforce is comprised of veterans, said recruiter Pam Walsh.
IT solutions provider CDW has made veteran hiring a priority and boosted its number of veteran hires by 46 percent last year, according to Jen Mahone, inclusion practice specialist at the company who spoke with scores of veterans at the job fair.
“We specifically target the veteran community because we want to make sure that we’re the employer of choice for them,” she said. “We have a culture that embraces our military veterans.
“Veterans have so many different transferrable skill sets that they can bring back to an organization, team building, they are very results driven,” she said. “They’re committed to whatever they do. That’s important to any organization.”
Still, returning veterans face unique challenges. The jobless rate for Gulf-War-era II veterans averaged 12.1 percent last year, compared to 8.7 percent for nonveterans. For all veterans, it was 8.3 percent.
“I think the biggest challenge is how to transition your skill set from the military to the civilian side,” Ragos said. “A lot of people don’t really know how to put that in resumes or how to say that in an interview.”
Navistar program manager and Afghanistan veteran Brad Watson, who counseled veterans at the job fair agreed. He added some employers have misperceptions about veterans’ skill sets, “particularly for combat arms military specialties, infantry, tanks, artillery,” he said. “Sometimes the perception is that those skills don’t translate well to industry when in fact they actually do. The parallels between what you do as a combat arms service member and what you do in business are strong.
Watson cited small unit leadership as one example.
“There’s not enough of it in American industry today,” he said. “The military is better than any other organization in developing small unit leaders. Another one any organization can benefit from is the strength of character you find in a veteran. There’s no better catalyst for strength of character than combat. The ability to persevere despite adversity and to take initiative despite uncertainty; these are all qualities you’ll find in veterans.”
Originally published by the Chicago Sun-Times on March 28, 2012. (http://www.suntimes.com/11584315-420/veterans-help-1000-veterans-at-chicago-job-fair.html)