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Trying to Put Vets Back to Work

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U.S. Army veteran Michael Long has been out of work for two years. When asked what job the 54-year-old might want, the former project manager and truck driver said, "One that pays."

The Highland Park resident was one of thousands of veterans Tuesday at Cobo Center as the nation's largest veterans job fair opened with more than 260 employers, from General Motors to Big Boy, looking to hire.

Hosted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the event and others like it this year aim to tackle high unemployment among veterans -- nearly 13% in May for those who have served since September 2001. The fairs also work to erase a stigma that appears to persist about hiring those recently returning from war and military service.

The unemployment problem is expected to get worse as thousands of military members return from the war in Afghanistan this year and next.

The companies and government agencies at the fair, which continues today and Thursday, are looking to fill 25,000 jobs in Michigan, other states and even as far away as Australia. The event is expected to attract 10,000 veterans, many of whom stood in long registration lines Tuesday morning.

MacKellar Mining in Queensland, Australia, was at the fair Tuesday looking to hire veterans. The company has more than 15 openings for mechanics, welders, machinists and others, but it can't find the talent it needs for its coal and gold mines Down Under.

Jeff Clifton, MacKellar's special projects manager, sees the positives of military service. "They are very disciplined. They love adventure," he said.

Australia caught the attention of Jennifer Smith of Port Huron, who served four years in the U.S. Navy. She's currently in the U.S. Navy Reserve and returned home last November after serving four months in Afghanistan. Smith, 33, has been searching for government and mechanical jobs. She gave them her resume and talked to them. MacKellar said it would contact her later, if interested.

"There are no military-friendly jobs where I live," said the single mother.

Kelly Valentine, 25, served four years in Iraq and Afghanistan with the U.S. Marine Corps. The Gibraltar resident is a carpenter, but he has been out of work for the last six months.

At the job fair, Valentine stopped by the GM booth to inquire about factory work because he doesn't want a desk job.

"It's pretty bad," he said of the job market. "The only jobs I can find pay minimum wage."

Most employers participating recognize that veterans can be assets for their companies.

Gallo Equipment, a family-owned business based in Chicago that sells Taylor forklift trucks, wants to hire a salesperson and a mechanic for its Redford Township office. In the Gallo booth on Tuesday, Tom Malvesto, a sales representative in Redford Township, proudly displayed a photo of his son, now in his 19th year in the U.S. Air Force.

"I understand the dedication that he has to his job," Malvesto said. "Nobody has to tell him what to do or how to do it."

Two aisles over, human resource representatives from Warren-based Big Boy Restaurants International were collecting resumes from veterans to pass on to managers of the company's 25 restaurants in Michigan. Big Boy has openings for managers, cooks, servers, greeters and others.

"We love veterans," said Dianne McBride, the company's benefits administrator. "They learn such valuable skills in the service."

For Anthony Flowers, the interest in hiring veterans can't come soon enough. The 34-year-old maintenance technician has been sending out resumes every day but so far hasn't gotten anyone to call him.

On Tuesday, he showed up at the job fair an hour before the doors opened.

"Anytime Cobo has a job fair, I'm here," said the Detroit resident. "I'm having a pretty good time."

More Details: VA for Vets Hiring Fair

Where: Cobo Center

When: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. today and Thursday

What: More than 260 employers and one-on-one resume writing workshops

Admission: Free for veterans. Bring proof of military service.

Detroit economic impact: $11 million*

Website: vaforvets.va.gov/detroit

More Details: Upcoming job fairs

-- Thursday: Professionals Career Expo in Livonia, JobFairGiant .com

-- Thursday: DriverSource in Dearborn, 800-887-9095

-- Friday: St. Moritz Building Services in Ann Arbor, www.bsinc.com/careers.asp and www.careerbuilder.com

-- July 25: MiVirtualCareerFair: Business, online job fair, mitalent.org/virtualcareerfair

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