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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Lt. Col. James Groark, right, of the 191st Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, gathers information at the "Hiring Our Heroes" Job Fair at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 17, 2013. The fair is one of a series of events intended to assist veterans, active-duty military, members of the National Guard and Reserve and military spouses to obtain employment or upgrade their current job situations. Groark has a full-time job with the military but was gathering information for reservists who just returned home from a tour of duty in the Middle East.

SALT LAKE CITY — Hundreds of war veterans networked with employers and searched for jobs at the Salt Palace Convention Center Wednesday as part of a national initiative to reduce unemployment among returning soldiers.

The fair was one of hundreds held around the country since March 2012 as part of the Hiring 500,000 Heroes campaign put on by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. More than 150 employers also attended. Terry Schow, executive director of the Department of Veteran Affairs, said finding stable employment is key to a successful return from duty.

“At the end of the day, we’re here to help veterans, military folks and their families make the transition back to civilian life,” Schow said. “For folks who served in combat zone, it affects them while they're there and it affects their family while they're there and it affects them when they come back. … We’re proud the community would come out and support them.”

Veterans who have served on active duty since 2001 experience a 9.9 percent unemployment rate, significantly higher than the national average of 7.7 percent. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment among veterans under 24 years old is 20 percent, more than 2 ½ times the national average. Hiring 500,000 Heroes claims to have placed 108,000 veterans in jobs since it launched, and says that veteran unemployment is slowly inching down.

“The last time we saw this large influx of veterans coming back to the U.S. workforce was the end of World War II,” said James Cunningham, the manager of digital programs for the Hiring Our Heroes initiative. “And that was the ‘greatest generation’ as we remember it. We don’t believe this is going to be any different, and that’s why we’re doing everything we can to get them in front of employers.”

Cunningham is himself a veteran who served in Afghanistan from 2007-08 and was named Student Veteran of the Year at the University of Utah in 2011. He said many businesses who originally hire veterans end up coming to fairs like the one on Wednesday looking for more.

“Veterans are on time, very well-disciplined and easily trainable. As an employer, I’m looking for someone whom I can give responsibility and who I know is going to be there,” Cunningham said. "To me, that’s exactly what a veteran is. They’re very task oriented.”

Ben Riley, a veteran who returned from Afghanistan about a year ago, was at the Salt Palace looking for an employer who could use his two bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and psychology.

“A lot of these businesses don't outwardly post some jobs, so unless I want to spend all day looking on the Internet and maybe have a chance at something, this gets them all in one place at one time,” Riley said. “It gives me an opportunity to represent myself face to face.”

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Riley currently teaches military science at the University of Utah as an assistant professor. But he said funding for his teaching position is rarely guaranteed.

“We all know how wishy-washy that is right now,” Riley said. “I just thought it was important to see what was available out there.”

Several workshops were also held throughout the day, covering topics ranging from dealing with PTSD to separation from spouses during deployment to how to effectively prepare a resume and interview successfully.

Email: blockhart@deseretnews.com