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1,600+ veterans turn out for regional jobs fair

Hundreds attend jobs fair for United States military veterans Palmer House HiltChicago Thursday March 21 2013.  | J.Geil ~

Hundreds attend a jobs fair for United States military veterans at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago, Thursday, March 21, 2013. | J.Geil ~ For Sun-Times Media

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CHICAGO — At Chicago’s Palmer House Hilton, former U.S. Navy man Joseph Pennington is surrounded by veterans looking for work — good, solid jobs.

Of all ages, they came with crisp resumes and ready handshakes, inching past dozens of well-known employers seated at tables in a vast fourth-floor ballroom.

Pennington works as the military recruiter for Combined Insurance in Glenview that participated Thursday in Hiring Our Heroes, a program of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

Several chamber hiring fairs are scheduled annually around the country, and this year’s goal is finding jobs for 5,000 military vets.

“We’ve had an influx of vets since the military draw down in Iraq in mid-2012 and now Afghanistan,” said Pennington, a former petty officer 1st Class and Seabee in the Naval Construction Battalion.

More than 1,600 vets attended Thursday’s event, while last year’s draw was less than 500, Pennington said.

“I’m surprised to see this many today. We collected about 50 resumes that we’ll follow up on.”

Nationally, Combined Insurance wants to hire 1,000 vets this year. In 2012, the company was ranked eighth for taking on former soldiers.

In the two years Combined Insurance has recruited at Hiring Our Heroes, it has hired 500 veterans.

In addition to serving their country with honor, Pennington said veterans often do well in the private sector.

“They’re dedicated and have an independent work style, which is good for an insurance company. You need motivation here and little supervision when given tasks,” said Pennington, of Naperville.

Some of the 130 companies in attendance were Capital One, Kraft Foods, FedEx and Nicor Gas.

Highland Park resident Randall Cooper was discharged from the U.S. Navy in 2011 and has yet to use his mechanical engineering degree from Northern Illinois University he earned in 2001.

He is unemployed, but found work in civil engineering until he was laid off.

“A lot of places aren’t hiring. I think I can work for Combined Insurance because I’ve had jobs in sales before and I’m a people person,” Cooper said.

“I’m not bitter about being unemployed. I’m not giving up on my education, either. I’m thinking about furthering it.”

Pennington said some companies fail to take advantage of a vet’s disciplined approach to jobs and ability to teamwork.

“These companies did not want to translate that experience into their workplace,” said Pennington, who also was a U.S. Navy recruiter.

“Combined Insurance reached out to me,” he said.

Combined Insurance also works with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs when veterans need more vocational training or time spent in emotional rehabilitation upon returning home from war.

Rene Costa, of Vernon Hills, spent 14 years in the U.S. Navy and was a petty officer 1st Class.

He has been jobless since 2011 when he was discharged.

He earned a certification in computers while in the military, and currently he is taking fine art classes at the Illinois Institute Art in Schaumburg.

“In the Navy, you’re performance is always being gauged by someone. You have to meet the criteria,” Costa said.

John Capra, divisional recruiter for Combined Insurance, said employees are hired not so much based on ability to sell, but to follow a system.

“Such as making five appointments with clients each week and talking to 40 potential clients a day. This system works for vets because they’re used to this type of structure,” he said.

Partnering with private companies, Hiring Our Heroes also provided transitional workshops for recently-discharged vets wanting to work.

For instance, General Electric helped vets in meeting rooms with resume-writing and interviewing.

Kris Urbauer, GE’s program coordinator for hiring vets, also graduated from West Point in 1986.

“All of us here at GE who were once in the military have made the transition. We want to help our vets. They make good hires because they know teamwork and they’re mission-focused,” she said.

“And they come to work on time.”

This year’s event was the first time the U.S. Chamber of Commerce pre-matched vets with face-to-face interviewers.

Before, the vets posted resumes with the Illinois Job Link website for viewing.

“They came here today knowing they had an interview on site. Usually, vets just get told to look at an employer’s website for jobs. What’s the point of that?” said Marody Leary, event director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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