In the early 1970s, Anthony Tarkowski learned the hard way that some employers did not want to hire soldiers returning from the Vietnam War.
The young veteran had just come back from Germany, where he had served after injuring his back during training. Despite his best efforts, he couldn't seem to get a job.
Then one day, a human resources manager gave him some advice: Don't put a check mark next to the veteran's box on job applications. Just skip it.
At his next job interview, Tarkowski followed this advice and scored well on a test for a data-processing position. He got the job.
"Veterans are highly trainable people," said Tarkowski, who is now CEO of Sygnetics, a staffing firm in Rochester Hills. "They will come to work. They are dedicated."
More than four decades later, veterans are still struggling to get hired. Their high jobless rate, particularly for the youngest ones, is a major problem, sparking a number of initiatives on the state and national levels. It's the reason Detroit's Cobo Center will play host to a massive job fair this week that's expected to draw 10,000 veterans.
"This is the most significant hiring event of its kind," said Mary Santiago, director of the Veterans Employment Services Office in Washington, D.C. "We want every veteran who comes to this event to walk away knowing they have been helped."
The job fair will be held in conjunction with the National Veteran Small Business Conference, which aims to help veteran business owners like Ed Moor of Charlotte win government and corporate contracts.
In May, the U.S. unemployment rate for veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces at any time since September 2001 stood at 12.7%, up from 12.1% a year earlier. Among these veterans, those who were male and ages 18 to 24 had a 29% jobless rate last year. The problem is likely to get worse as thousands of soldiers return from the war in Afghanistan this year and next.
In Michigan, the unemployment rate for its 703,000 veterans is significantly higher than the national rate. In 2011, 11.2% of all veterans in the state were searching for a job versus 8.3% for all U.S. veterans.
The large numbers of unemployed veterans in Michigan and nearby states led the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to select Detroit as the site for its job fair. From Tuesday through Thursday, more than 260 employers will be looking to fill 25,000 jobs in Michigan and around the country.
"We have to do more," said Michael Cooper, manager of employment strategy and compliance for Detroit-based DTE Energy, one of the companies that will participate in the job fair. "We know that veterans have skill sets that are aligned with many of our needs."
DTE will be interviewing veterans for more than 35 positions, including engineers, security integrity specialists and material handlers.
The company regularly attends job fairs geared toward veterans, and its website enables veterans to easily find job openings that are a good match with their military skills and experience. About 755 of DTE's 10,000 employees are veterans.
Campbell Ewald, a Warren-based advertising agency, will also be at the job fair with more than 20 positions available, not just in Michigan but also at its offices in San Antonio and Los Angeles.
"We feel it is our civic responsibility to try to reach out to the veteran community," said Barb Rozman-Stokes, Campbell Ewald's human resources manager.
Experts blame the high jobless rates for veterans on a variety of factors. Chief among them: employers' misperceptions about veterans' abilities and the difficulties veterans face in translating their military experiences into skills that employers understand.
"Many companies are eager to help and agree that hiring veterans is patriotic and 'the right thing to do.' However, most companies are usually only able to hire veterans when there is also a business-related motivation," according to a report released this month by the Center for a New American Security, a national security think tank.
To combat the problem, state and national officials have developed a number of initiatives to help veterans find work. Last week, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. began e-mailing a biweekly newsletter to veterans containing the latest information about job opportunities and training programs. Veterans can sign up to receive it at mitalent.org.
The agency has also revamped the state's online job portal, the Michigan Talent Bank, to make it easier for employers to find veterans. And programs are in the works to help veterans transition to civilian work, educate employers on how to make their workplaces more welcoming for veterans and assist current soldiers with their job searches before they come home.
Unemployed veterans in the state between ages 35 and 60 are also eligible for a U.S. job retraining program being launched next month by the Veterans Affairs Department. The Veterans Retraining Assistance Program ( benefits.va.gov/vow) aims to help 99,000 jobless veterans over the next two years.
Amy Cell, the MEDC's senior vice president of talent enhancement, said a growing number of Michigan employers have been contacting the agency about hiring veterans since Gov. Rick Snyder spoke out about the issue last month. "There's a nice outpouring of support," she said.
For veterans who want to start their own companies as well as those who already operate their own firms, the small-business conference at Cobo this week will provide lots of resources, including training sessions and networking opportunities.
Moor, co-owner and president of Elar, a Charlotte-based distributor of paper and plastic bags for retailers and others, said he plans to attend the conference to meet with purchasing managers and learn more about government contracting.
The Vietnam veteran has participated in the conference each of the last two years.
"There are all kinds of help for us to do business," Moor said. The conferences "are very worthwhile."
Contact Katherine Yung: 313-222-8763 or firstname.lastname@example.org
More Details: Vets are coming
National Veteran Small Business Conference and VA for Vets Hiring Fair
When: June 26-28 for the job fair; June 26-29 for the small-business conference
Where: Cobo Center in Detroit
Admission fees: The job fair and a benefits information open house are free for veterans. There is a fee to attend the conference. See www .national veterans conference .com .
Job fair info: Register at VAforVets.VA.gov/Detroit. More than 260 employers and 100 professional resume writers and human resource experts are expected to attend. Veterans should bring proof of military service and copies of their resume.
Conference: More than 200 training sessions and nearly 500 exhibitors.
Benefits for Detroit: $3 million to $5 million economic boost from 10,000 veterans expected to attend.
More Details: Job resources for veterans
-- Veterans Retraining Assistance Program: www.benefits.va.gov/vow or call 800-827-1000
-- State of Michigan programs: mitalent.org/veterans or face book.com/miveteransservices
-- Michigan Department of Transportation's Wounded Veterans Internship Program: www.michigan.gov /wounded vetintern
-- Veterans Job Bank: www.NRD.gov
-- Michigan Service Disabled Veteran-Owned Business Roundtable: Keith King at info@keithking associates.com