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Veterans-only employment fair attracts 200 job seekers

Christopher Cousins | BDN
Christopher Cousins | BDN
Brian Campbell of Norridgewock, an Army veteran, talks with Amie Parker, the employment manager at Bates College in Lewiston, during a Hiring our Heroes job fair Thursday, November 10, 2011, at the Augusta Civic Center. Campbell said that after decades as a landscape architect, he's looking for a job that will keep him inside during the winter months.
By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — Pam Chase sat in her car outside the Augusta Civic Center for about a half hour Thursday wondering what she’d find inside.

Chase, a Navy veteran from Gardiner, had never been to a job fair before, but the Hiring our Heroes event, which was designed especially for veterans, caught her attention.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “But this event is kind of nice for veterans, so I thought why not come out?”

Chase, like many others, is looking for a full-time job, but the thought of facing two dozen employers inside was a little daunting.

“I was just watching people coming and going,” she said. “After a while I just figured it was time to come in. Plus, there was a break in the rain.”

Hiring our Heroes is a nationwide initiative by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which seeks to hold 100 similar events across the country by the end of the year. Thursday’s event in Augusta was the 58th and was organized by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce. According to Maine Chamber President Dana Connors, the daylong job fair was attended by about 25 employers and more than 200 veterans.

“There’s been a steady flow of people all day,” said Connors Thursday afternoon.

One of those people was 51-year-old Brian Campbell, a landscape architect from Norridgewock. He said he has always loved his job, but that it’s becoming harder as he ages.

“I’ve always worked outside, but my joints just won’t do it anymore,” he said. “I’d pay to go back to college if it was for a certain job. I just can’t work outside in the winter anymore.”

The employers at Thursday’s event ranged from construction companies to defense contractors to financial services firms. Randy Paul Martin, who works for a financial services firm called Primerica, said many of the vets he talked to Thursday were apprehensive about a field so far removed from what they’re used to doing, but he said several of them were interested after learning about on-the-job training and the responsibilities of the jobs he has available.

“The financial industry is growing,” he said. “Most of them come to me with a puzzled look on their face, but we’re just looking for people with good people skills.”

Martin said he gathered more than a dozen leads at Thursday’s job fair, many of which he’ll be interviewing in the coming days.

Amie Parker, the employment manager for Bates College in Lewiston, said she has picky about which job fairs she attends, but jumped on the Hiring our Heroes event for the prospect of recruiting veterans, who she said typically have more of the attributes she’s seeking. She said Bates has numerous job openings.

“I have a personal interest in making sure we support our veterans,” she said. “They have really good communication skills and they know how to introduce themselves really well. Today I’ve taken several resumes and encouraged them to apply online.”

Emily Hopkins and Eric Krohne were representing UNUM, a firm in Portland. They agreed that veterans generally bring more to the table as employees, such as adaptability and an openness to skill-building.

“We are very interested in people with such a wide range of skills,” said Hopkins, who also has represented UNUM at Hiring our Heroes events in Boston, Atlanta and Knoxville, Tenn.

While some of the job-seeking vets were looking for better employment, others were clearly in desperate situations. John O’Sullivan, 59, of Rockport has been out of work since he lost his job in July 2010. As a former emergency medical technician in New York state, O’Sullivan said he’s looking for a job in the health care field.

“Some of those jobs pay more than $40,000 a year, but $20,000 a year would be good money for me,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to work until I’m 70 or until my health gives out, but finding a job isn’t that easy.”

Connors said the Maine State Chamber of Commerce was watching Thursday’s event closely with the intention of hosting similar events in the coming months.

“Our country today truly appreciates the men and women who serve on our behalf,” he said. “One of the sad ironies of it all is they run into some challenges when they come out of the service that they didn’t anticipate.”

The Togus VA Medical Center maintains a hot line that connects veterans with a range of support services, including job counseling. The numbers are 877-421-8263 or 623-8411.

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