Stella Okigbo, a staff sergeant in the New Jersey National Guard, registers for the Hiring Our Heroes job fair in New Jersey. (Photo by Doug Malin)

Career fair brings hundreds to Meadowlands

MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., has seen its share of important football moments, but none of them as important as Saturday’s event, which invited veterans and active-duty servicemembers to its confines to find employment and meaningful work.

Around 400 veterans, servicemembers and military spouses gathered at the home of the NFL’s New York Giants on June 22 for a Hiring Our Heroes job fair that welcomed 125 employers – all of whom were looking to hire veterans and spouses.

The job fair was made possible through a joint sponsorship by The American Legion, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Verizon Wireless, NBC News and the New Jersey Department of The American Legion. The Legion’s Department of New Jersey supplied around 40 volunteers from the Legion family and helped coordinate the event as part of its commitment to bring job fairs to the state.

"These job fairs are crucial," said Bob Looby, past department commander for New Jersey. "The drawdown and with all this Defense-spending cutting, there’s going to be more guys and girls who are coming home, and a lot of them are the 24-year-olds who went from high school straight into the service and have nowhere to go."

The event welcomed an assortment of employers from the private and public sectors, including Verizon Wireless, Prudential, the New Jersey State Parole Board and the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Also among them were veterans service organizations and nonprofit entities there to assist veterans and their families with employment-related needs.

"(The employers) really run the whole gamut of the economy," said Ross Cohen, senior director for the U.S. Chamber’s Hiring Our Heroes program. "It’s going to take public and private partnerships to get these folks into jobs so that we can really see what this (drawdown) is: it’s a huge opportunity, just like after World War II."

The Legion’s role in the event wasn’t just limited to a sponsorship capacity; the department supplied about 40 Legionnaires and SAL and Auxiliary members from Bergen County to help organize the event and provide on-site assistance. The volunteers assisted with registration, the various employment workshops at the stadium and maintained booths to help attendees with benefits claims.

"We’re a staff of 30," Cohen said. "If it weren’t for volunteers, especially folks like the Legion, to help us guide people in to help run the workshops and staff it, we couldn’t do it."

In addition to getting a chance to network with employers and apply for jobs, attendees also could participate in résumé writing workshops which gave them one-on-one assistance in editing their résumés.

Stella Okigbo, a staff sergeant in the New Jersey National Guard, took advantage of all of the services available, establishing some business connections with employers and working with a consultant to perfect her résumé.

"The experience was excellent because your résumé gets you in the door and gets you hired. Without a good résumé, you can only get so far," Okigbo said.

A similar résumé writing workshop proved particularly beneficial for Rebecca Newman, an Air Force veteran who attended a Hiring Our Heroes career fair earlier this year in New York City and had a representative from General Electric revise her résumé with her. Newman was at the job fair on June 22 in East Rutherford but wasn’t there as an attendee – she was there as a representative for Verizon Wireless. Newman was hired by Verizon shortly after she met representatives from the company at the Hiring Our Heroes career fair she attended in New York City.

"Besides the booths (at the New York City event), I had a one-on-one with an employee from GE who was also a Marine," Newman said. "He was very good about going through my résumé and helping me streamline it."

The weekend’s job fair was the 13th job fair that the Legion has sponsored in New Jersey this year. The department has plans to host three more before year’s end.

The initiative is part of the Department of New Jersey’s efforts to bring job fairs to the state and fight for legislation to make it easier for veterans in the state to use their service-learned skills to gain easier access to credentialing certification and licenses. The department notched a legislative victory earlier this month when Gov. Chris Christie signed into law a bill that allows military spouses who hold a teaching license in a different state to obtain a temporary license in New Jersey while they wait for state certification.

The department is currently working with Christie’s office to pass additional legislation to streamline the credential process for state veterans in other areas of certification. Christie spoke at the department’s convention earlier this month.

"We’re working with (the Legion’s) national staff in the Economic Division to pass credentialing legislation," Looby said. "We also have a good relationship with Governor Christie."

Much like the Legion’s national employment initiatives, the Department of New Jersey is placing equal importance on arranging job fairs and bringing them to all parts of the state.

"There’s a lot of veterans coming home and very few jobs available," said Bob Salvini, Bergen County commander. "The more we can have fairs like these that are dedicated to hiring returning soldiers, the better off they are going to be. We owe it to them."