Vaughn Howard, who spent more than six years in the US Marines and was wounded in Iraq, has now joined the tens of thousands of fellow veterans fighting to re-enter the US job market.
“I spent all these years fighting for my country and being a part of something greater than myself, which is the United States Marines Corps, to come out and have to work for pennies,” he said, gritting his teeth.
“And I’d say yes, it’s been really tough,” he added on Wednesday, surrounded by hundreds of ex-servicemen at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, the first such fair organized by the US Department of Veteran Affairs.
A wretched US labor market has forced Howard, 33, who was awarded the Purple Heart military honor, to settle for low-paid construction work.
His problem is common among former US military personnel. The US Department of Labor said last month that it had identified 248,000 combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan as unemployed.
In 2010, 22 million Americans were veterans, according to government statistics. They include 2.2 million who have served since the start of the Afghanistan war in 2001. The US-led war in Iraq began in 2003.
According to Ryan Gallucci, an Iraq veteran now serving as deputy national communications director of AMVETS, about 13 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are unemployed — compared to about 8 percent for the general public.
“The numbers become even worse if you look at young veterans. Between 18 and 24, it’s about 30 percent. One in three young veterans are unemployed,” he said.
Coca-Cola, the FBI, JPMorgan Chase and the Philadelphia police were among the employers looking for new talent at the fair.
Alexander, who would not give his surname, is one of the lucky ones, using “the skills I have learned as a Marine Corps officer to become a successful store manager,” for Safeway, he said at the supermarket’s jobs fair stand.
The supermarket chain was offering between 75 and 100 posts at the fair, and have set up special programs for veterans, Safeway recruiter Debbie Eaton said.
“We found that with the strong leadership of the military, we can teach them all the technical ins and outs of our grocery stores business. They bring the leadership” needed to manage a store, she said.
A total of 6,400 jobs were on offer from 120 companies and government agencies during the fair, where recruiters counseled veterans on resume-writing and other job-finding skills.
US Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, a retired army general, was also in attendance.
“We asked them to fight, sacrifice and risk their lives for their country. They should not fight for a job when they come home,” he said, citing US President Barack Obama, whose administration has given incentives for hiring veterans.
Allen Timko, 59, who came to the fair from his home in Ohio, is a Vietnam veteran and former cable TV installer who has been unemployed for two years.
“It’s real tough. It’s hard to find a good job — any job really — but I’ve found a few good leads,” he said.