Nearly 4,000 soldiers and airmen attended a huge jobs fair Thursday at McChord Field, meeting face to face with potential employers and school recruiters eager to help them ease into civilian life.
The jobs fair, which organizers said was the biggest of several such events held across the United States and at American bases in Europe and the Pacific, was designed to help military members whose careers have been cut short by the drawdown in Afghanistan.
About 9,000 service members will end their military careers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord this year, said Robin Baker, who heads the base’s transition assistance program.
That’s up from a typical yearly average of about 6,000, Baker said.
“We expect the number to stay up for the next couple of years,” she said. “A lot of those are people who thought they were going to stay in the service until they retired.”
Between 35 and 40 percent of those mustered out at JBLM will stay in Washington, Baker said. That’s a fraction of the 13,000 service members from all American duty stations expected to return to the state this year, looking for new ways of making a living.
Thursday’s jobs fair was the climax of a three-day “transition summit” at JBLM, sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and joined by a large public-private partnership that included JBLM, Washington state and federal departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Labor.
Gov. Jay Inslee was among those who made remarks when the summit opened Tuesday.
Close to 300 businesses, school recruiters and state and federal agencies set up tables at the fair, held in two cavernous aircraft hangers at the air base.
The Starbucks table was a popular stop, in part because of free coffee, but also because of the company’s well-publicized promise to hire at least 10,000 veterans and spouses by the end of 2018.
Other participants ranged widely, from the Washington State Patrol to trade unions, hotel chains and small business advisers.
More than 100 of the booths were staffed by recruiters from colleges and training schools from across the country, where former soldiers’ tuition and fees will be covered by federal GI benefits.
Spc. Jose Peraza, 23, whose four-year term of service in the Army ends in March, made a quick trip past all the tables before narrowing his choices to a few.
“Starbucks was my first stop,” he said, “but I’m looking for anything that will match my pay and benefits. I’d be happiest with something in IT or maybe customer service.”
Peraza, who lives in Tacoma, said he and his wife calculated he will need a civilian job that pays at least $46,000 a year to match his Army pay and benefits.
The Army trained Peraza in satellite operations and maintenance, which set him apart from most others at the fair.
The vast majority, according to Baker, were trained in infantry or artillery. Most are under 30, she said, and about 85 percent are men. Many joined the Army or Air Force directly out of high school, and had limited work experience before that.
What might an Army-trained infantry soldier in his 20s bring to a civilian job?
Plenty, said, Charles Dorazio, a trainer for the U-Haul company, which staffed a booth at the fair.
“Our company was founded by a World War II vet,” Dorazio said, “and the intangible traits that a service member brings to the table still directly translates over to working for U-Haul.
“They’ve had leadership training; they’ve had equal opportunity training. Their experience translates to them being good small group leaders. They can run a team of five to 15 people, which is exactly what we’re looking for in our store managers.”
Dorazio said he himself is a veteran and knows firsthand how difficult it is making the leap back into the civilian world.
“It’s scary,” he said. “You don’t talk the same. You’re used to a very tight community where you’re very comfortable. You don’t know how to approach people. You don’t know how to sell yourself.
“I’ve gone through what they’re going through,” he said, “and I’m more than happy to assist them.”
Susan Kelly, director of the Defense Department’s Transition to Veterans Program, participated in a panel discussion Thursday. Afterward, she said she’s noticed a dramatic change in the past few years in how businesses regard hiring vets.
“It used to be that there was a sea of goodwill,” she said. “People wanted to help.
“The goodwill is still there,” she said, “but now people realize that vets are a talent pool for the national economy. That’s a big change from what we saw two or three years ago.”