There are several variations of a popular phrase in Puerto Rico: When the United States gets a cold, Puerto gets the flu, pneumonia or any other much more serious malady. The meaning behind the phrase always is the same, however – when U.S. problems are occurring, they’re usually worse in Puerto Rico.
Such is the case of the unemployment rate for veterans. When it was hovering at 17 percent stateside, it was three points higher in Puerto Rico. A figure like that troubled American Legion Department of Puerto Rico Commander Ildefonso Colon.
"People think because we live on an island, things are always great and easy down here," he said. "They are not. We do not get a great amount of federal assistance down here. We get less than the smallest state, even though with our population, we’d be the 29th largest state. If we can’t change that, then we need to do some things on our own."
Taking on that challenge very soon into his tenure as commander, Colon worked with American Legion staff in the Washington office to bring a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Hiring Our Heroes Career Fair on June 1 to the Embassy Suites Hotel and Casino near San Juan. The hiring fair brought 25 employers together with nearly 200 veterans, servicemembers and their spouses. Other job-seekers who weren’t able to attend the hiring fair uploaded résumés online that will be shared with prospective employers.
"I really didn’t expect such a big turnout," Colon said. "I thought we’d have maybe 10 or 15 employers here. This really exceeded my expectations."
Colon began working with D.C. staff last fall to bring one of the U.S. Chamber’s hiring fairs to Puerto Rico. The Chamber launched the program in March 2011 and conducted nearly 120 career fairs in its first year. The Chamber scheduled 400 such fairs this year; the Legion is expected to partner in at least 200 of those.
"The American Legion is a key partner in this program," said Kathryn Poynton, deputy director of Events and Strategic Outreach for Hiring Our Heroes. "The American Legion has the ability to reach out to all levels of the veteran community. Not all veterans live in big cities like Chicago. They live in smaller urban areas and in rural communities. That’s where Legion posts exist, and that’s where the Legion can help us reach out to veterans we may not be able to reach."
Poynton attended the Puerto Rico hiring fair. "I think this is an excellent start," she said. "This area has a high unemployment rate, and I think hiring fairs like this can really be a benefit to the veterans in this area."
Employers at the fair included AFLAC, Amway, Citi, Hertz, Walmart and Xerox, as well as federal agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The lineup impressed 22-year-old Ricardo Santiago, a Marine Corps Reservists in San Juan looking for full-time employment.
"I saw a lot (of employers) I’m interested in," Santiago said. "Our unit was asked to come out here and help set up for the fair. After that, I started job hunting."
Armando Diaz, a member of Santiago’s unit, was also there to help set up and found himself perusing the employers’ booths afterward. "This is a great initiative," he said. "When most people leave the military, they’re not going to go straight to retirement. They’re going to need a job. And with employers like the FBI and DEA here, that’s an easier transition to go there from the military."
Department of Puerto Rico Legionnaires also manned a table at the fair, passing out membership literature and answering questions about potential medical and retirement benefits. But the focus was employment, and within four days of the fair, 15 job offers had been made. But Colon said the hiring fair cannot be a one-time effort.
"People needed this down here, and you can tell by how far some of them were willing to travel," he said. "I talked with four veterans who live on the southwest side of the island. They split the cost of renting a vehicle and drove two and a half hours to get here.
"Because of the topography of Puerto Rico, it can be difficult to quickly get from one end of the island to the other. My hope is that we can have additional hiring fairs in the other heavily populated areas of Puerto Rico. We believe our highest concentration of veterans are in those areas."
But bringing the first veterans hiring fair to his homeland will remain one of his biggest achievements as department commander, Colon said. It shares the same place in his heart as his effort in increasing the number of department service officers in Puerto Rico, resulting in an all-time high of $9 million secured in compensation and pension payments this year.
"Those two accomplishments rank at the top for this year," Colon said. "I think it helped put us back on track, and we’ll be seeing the fruits of those labors."