Job fair connects local spouses, veterans with area employers

JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii -- The national unemployment rate is currently hovering at around 9 percent, but veterans who have served since 9/11 have a higher unemployment rate than the rest of the country at 12 percent.

Putting veterans back to work inspired a yearlong, nationwide effort to help veterans and their spouses find meaningful employment.

More than 500 spouses and veterans got the opportunity to meet face-to-face with 50 of America's biggest companies at a "Hiring our Heroes" job fair, here, Monday.

Since the program launched in March 2011, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has hosted 68 hiring fairs in 38 states, connecting more than 55,000 veterans and military spouses, giving them the opportunity to meet with more than 2,500 different employers. As a result, more than 3,600 veterans and military spouses have found employment.

During her three-day visit to Hawaii for the 2011 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, first lady Michelle Obama spoke at the hiring fair and offered words of encouragement and praise to those in attendance.

"Each time I speak with a veteran or military spouse, I am awed by their strength and resilience, and I am struck by just how much they're contributing to our communities every single day," she said to the crowd of 250 gathered in front of her.

"They're leading the Scout troop, taking night classes, running the carpool and sending off care packages to deployed units overseas -- all while shouldering the emotional costs of an empty seat at the dinner table for months at a time.

First lady Michelle Obama speaks to a crowd during the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's "Hiring our Heroes," job fair at JBPHH's Officers Club, Monday. Obama is the daughter of an Army veteran who is a strong supporter of veterans and their spouses entering into post-military life.

"They have packed up their families and moved to another part of the country -- or the world -- again and again, so they know how to quickly adapt to new environments and people. And these experiences -- the ones they deal with every day -- give them the perfect background to manage large-scale projects, find creative solutions to problems, and fight through anything that comes their way.

"Yet, even with all of these skills and experiences, veterans and military spouses aren't always at the top of the list for employers when it comes time to fill an open position. … And too often, a military spouse's resume -- checkered with different residences and job experiences -- is seen as a red flag, rather than a reflection of the variety of skills and experiences that military spouses have to offer," she continued.

Hoping to change that, she and Dr. Jill Biden started an initiative called "Joining Forces" to recognize, honor and support veterans and military families. They are joining forces with businesses, nonprofit organizations, government, communities and individuals, and they are focusing on areas like education and wellness to help troops and their spouses find and keep good jobs.

"You may not wear a uniform, but when your loved one is called to service, you are serving right beside them," she said to family members during her speech. "As my husband said, no one who has fought for our country abroad should have to fight for a job when they return home."

Acknowledging the fact that transitioning from a war zone to the civilian workplace isn't easy, she said that American companies have pledged to hire 125,000 more veterans and their spouses by 2014. She said it's not charity; it's helping skilled people put their talents to work.

Job fair employers, here, ranged from America's biggest companies, such as CVS, Disney, Walmart, PepsiCo, Prudential and Verizon, to dozens of companies from across the state like Hawaiian Telecom, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bank of Hawaii and Tanioka's Seafood and Catering. They were on hand to hire veterans of all ranks and spouses of all levels of experience.

"The current 12-percent unemployment rate for our service members is unacceptable," said Kevin Schmiegel, vice president, Veterans Employment Program, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and a 20-year Marine veteran. "I consider this a matter of national security because if a spouse cannot find work that could very well affect the service member's decision to re-enlist in this all volunteer force. Hiring a veteran or a spouse isn't just the right thing to do, it's the right thing to do for business."

Along with connecting veterans and employers, the Hiring Our Heroes job fair also works to help military spouses get jobs, which can be especially difficult as families constantly move from place to place. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 25 percent of military spouses are currently unemployed.

"You can't put your personality down on paper, so events like this allow me to present myself to employers and make those connections I cannot make on paper," said Antonio Davis, Army spouse. "The last nine months have been rough in the job department, but I am confident the contacts I made today will turn my luck around."

For those like Davis who are actively looking for work during these tough economic times, the first lady assured the crowd that America supports them.

"So if there is one thing that I want you all to know today -- and I want every veteran and every spouse and family to know -- (it) is that America does have your back. America has your back," she said.