Joe Gojevic thought his military background would help him find work in the private sector.
But the college-educated, bilingual Middlefield Village resident has been underemployed for 26 months.
"It's been a long road," said the 39-year-old Gojevic. "The financial institution I worked at for a decade ended up closing. Now, I'm working part-time in business administration. It's difficult to feed your family on that."
Gojevic was one of an estimated 350 to 400 veterans and active duty military members who attended the 2012 Hiring Our Heroes Hiring Fair at the Wolstein Center in Cleveland on Friday. The free event was also open to Guard and Reserve members and eligible spouses.
Gojevic has a master's degree in business administration from Case Western University, speaks Croatian and served his country in the U.S. Army from 1992 to 1996. He wants a full-time job for the sake of his wife and two children, ages 4 and 9.
"I find employers would step away from me because they can't accept that I am willing to accept the bottom of the totem pole," said Gojevic, smartly-dressed in a black suit and tie. "Today, I wanted to meet people face-to-face. I came here to stand out."
Daniel Feathers, a 26-year-old Stow resident who served in Iraq in the Marine Corps, was hoping the hiring fair would change his luck.
"I've applied for over 100 jobs online -- with no success so far," said Feathers, who graduates in December from Kent State University's exercise science program. "It's been really hard after I got out of the military to find a job. I thought being in the military would make it easier to find a meaningful career, but it hasn't."
About 100 employers and veterans services organizations registered for the event.
Cassie Sisler, human resources administrator for Republic Steel -- which has plants in Lorain and Canton -- said her company has 400 salaried and hourly positions open.
"We're trying to reach out to Lorain folks," she said. "We need these people, and we need them yesterday. Our benefits are excellent, and we have a 401(k) match."
Sisler added that Republic Steel is opening Electric Arc Furnace in Lorain in the summer of 2013 -- an $85 million project.
"The new opening will give us the ability to roll and melt steel at both facilities," she said. "We're hiring weekly. It's absolutely huge."
Job seekers were also interested in STERIS Corp. positions in Mentor.
STERIS recruiter John Carter said the global manufacturer of infection prevention products places a huge emphasis on diversity hiring -- focusing on veterans.
"We have dozens of open positions," he said. "A lot of military job classifications correlate to the (engineering and manufacturing) jobs we have here."
Linda Wright-Manuel, human resources manager for Enginetics Aerospace in Eastlake, said she's looking for trained engineers, general assemblers, material handlers, tool makers and CNC operators.
"I know the individuals who served our country in the military are dedicated and hard workers," she said. "Since we make engine parts, people's lives are at stake."
Shaun Carter, a spokesman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Hiring Our Heroes National Chamber Foundation, said about 12 percent of veterans are unemployed right now. For those ages 18 to 24, the number rises to 25 percent.
"I really think it's unfortunate that our heroes have such a high unemployment rate," he said.
Nationwide, military job fairs have connected about 10,000 veterans with jobs, Shaun Carter said.
In 2013, companies that hire veterans will receive tax credits. Companies that hire disabled vets who have looked for work for more than six months will receive as much as $9,600 in tax credits.
The VOW to Hire Veterans Act that was signed into law last year also provides better job training and counseling for unemployed veterans.
Terry Stone, director of AMVETS Post No. 32 in Elyria, was at the job fair trying to spread the word about what the local career center has to offer vets.
"I get a lot of veterans who don't know how to run a computer well enough," said Stone. "We offer free college-level courses for that. We also help with resume writing, interview skills and personal appearance for interviews."
The job fair also had experts on hand who could help people start their own businesses.
Nick Early, director of the Veterans Business Resource Council, said his organization can teach veterans how to market and sell their product, keep records, do their taxes and write contracts through a free, 18-week program for entrepreneurs.
"We've gotten a good response today," said Early, a Vietnam veteran who was injured in a helicopter crash.
Cleveland resident Jack McLaughlin, a 44-year-old Navy veteran of the Persian Gulf War, said he was feeling hopeless about ever finding work again until he attended the job fair.
"Before, my situation was really grim. I've been laid off for over a year," McLaughlin said as he left the event. "But this was wonderful. I think I have some great job leads. Coming here today was really a blessing."