Editor’s note: This is a weekly series of Department Spotlight stories featuring unique programs and initiatives of departments throughout The American Legion. Department adjutants are invited to recommend subjects for their departments by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 2015, 5.5 percent of New Mexico’s veteran population was unemployed — almost a full percentage point higher than the national veteran unemployment rate, according to the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions.
“(We had) a lot of homeless veterans and a lot of unemployed veterans,” said National Vice Commander Paul Espinoza from The American Legion Department of New Mexico. “Why don’t we put a job fair together?”
The department’s third annual Operation Hiring Heroes job fair, held March 8 at Post 13 in Albuquerque, was another success, as the event has continued to grow each year.
Parking was at a premium as was space inside the post as hundreds of job-seekers, the majority of them veterans, came in search of new careers.
“We’re struggling with our labor market. But considering that, look at the turnout,” said Chris Zafra, state veterans coordinator for Workforce Solutions. “There are still job openings, we’re still having employers consider veterans for employment. It’s a good indication that (they’re) providing preference for veterans. Of course, New Mexico is a vet-friendly state.”
The event included 48 employers and informational booths; Margaret Sachs, business outreach lead for the New Mexico Workforce Connection and one of the organizers of the event, said that even the morning of the job fair there were employers hoping to find a space.
Organizers said the job fair grows each year; this year, to get more employers in, some of the informational booths were moved to an adjacent smaller hall at Post 13.
Also, Workforce Solutions’ mobile unit was on site to provide help to people with their resumes and with online applications. District Commander Leon Martinez said that’s a benefit to older job-seekers who may not be as computer-literate.
“There’s a lot of older veterans that are having trouble getting jobs, this is the perfect venue (for them),” Martinez said.
Veterans have characteristics that appeal to employers, said Sandra Epenesa of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Veterans Employment and Training Service.
“They’re dedicated, they follow through, they have that military bearing,” Epenesa said. “Ninety-nine percent of (these employers) say they’ll hire a veteran first."
Of course, hosting the job fair at Post 13 is not only a boon to job-seekers and employers, but to the Legion itself. Espinoza, Martinez and other Legion family members shared the benefits of Legion membership with interested veterans at the job fair.
“It’s one of our ways of giving back to the community,” said Martinez; at least a couple of veterans signed up for Legion membership while at the event.
And even with the space limitations, Martinez wants to make sure the event stays at Post 13.
“We’ve got the small hall we can expand to if it gets any bigger,” he said.
At least one other Legion post in the state has reached out to get information on what planning and hosting such an event entails, in hopes of bringing a job fair to their post.