Thousands of vets flock to Detroit for hiring fair

DETROIT (AP) — Staff Sgt. Michael Burton's 20-year Army career has taken him all over the globe — from Panama to Somalia, and Haiti to Iraq.

In 45 days, however, the 40-year-old Detroit resident will be a former member of the U.S. military. And that means he needs a job.

The soon-to-be-retiree was one of thousands of veterans who flocked to a downtown convention hall this week for a first-of-its-kind gathering designed to help America's warriors on a number of fronts: a job fair, a small business conference and an open house.

The job fair got under way Tuesday, and, according to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs official Mary Santiago, it's "the largest hiring event that the VA has ever done."

The free "VA for Vets Hiring Fair," which runs through Thursday, features 230 employers and 25,000 job openings. More than 7,000 veterans pre-registered.

Burton, who is looking to put his skills as a mechanic to work, made his way from booth to booth, shaking hands and chatting up potential employers in the automotive field.

"I've hit quite a few (booths)," Burton said, smiling. "A couple of them have been kind of like on-the-spot job interviews ... so it's been going real well."

Not only is the job fair providing veterans with an opportunity to meet face-to-face with potential employers, but it also affords them with expert assistance in the fields of resume preparation, interview techniques and career coaching.

Tens of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are facing a sometimes-difficult transition from military life to the limited job prospects out there as the U.S. slowly emerges from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

A Bureau of Labor Statistics report in March found that 12.1 percent of U.S. Armed Forces veterans who served on active duty after September 2001 were unemployed last year, compared with an 8.7 percent rate for the non-veteran public, according to federal statistics.

A VA-hosted hiring fair held in January in Washington, D.C., attracted 4,100 veterans.

But what sets this week's events apart from past VA-sponsored fairs is the one-stop shopping. The open house also provides them with a chance to learn about the financial and health care benefits, services and resources that are available from federal, state and community agencies.

And for veterans who own or work at small businesses, there is assistance available at the National Veterans Small Business Conference and Expo.

That's what drew Vietnam vet Gene Klein, who works at a veteran-owned small business in Huntley, Ill.

"This function — the hiring fair and the benefits — gives back to the veteran community what the veteran community has given to this country," said Klein, 68. "The veterans come here (and) they get a helping hand, not a handout."

Retired Brig. Gen. Allison Hickey, the VA's undersecretary for benefits, said this isn't a typical job fair, or, as she puts it: It isn't the "drop off your resume, leave it on the table, we may get back to you" kind of event.

"These are real, live jobs that we're gonna prepare you for," she said.