Unemployed veterans: As economy struggles, a push to connect veterans with jobs

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - As Florida and much of the nation deals with what many economists say is a still-stagnant economy, there is a growing push to connect veterans with jobs as they return from overseas tours of duty.

At a Hiring Our Heroes job fair at the Palm Beach County Convention Center on Tuesday, James Peppler, a 21-year U.S. Air Force veteran, worked the room of more than 100 employers.

"Probably three or four [employers] are in my comfort zone," said Peppler, a Stuart resident and former director of military affairs at the now defunct Digital Domain Media Group. "I told my wife, I said, 'you know, honey, I'm not going to have any trouble finding a job. And, I'm not going to have any trouble finding a good-paying job.' "

Increasingly, veterans and active duty service members return from combat with a wide and varied skill set.

Yet, many of them are unemployed.

Among Iraq and Afghanistan-era war veterans, the unemployment rate stands at 10.9 percent.

The unemployment rate is even higher for veterans under 25 years old -- 29.1 percent.

"For some men and women it can be daunting," said Ernie Lombardi, an associate at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "There are a variety of issues that they need to work through themselves as human beings but, however, that being said, a lot of times the employers just don't see the value of having the veterans on their team."

Florida has one of the highest concentrations of veterans in the country.

The job fair at the convention center, which was presented by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, set out to tap into a broad pool of veterans.

Retailers, energy companies and defense contractors were among the employers that collected resumes from veterans and their spouses.

Peppler, a Stuart resident who flew F-16 fighter jets before he worked at Digital Domain Media Group, met with Stuart-based TurboCombustor Technology, Inc.

The company said it had several open positions, including a machinist, an MIS specialist and a program manager.

"I was an F-16 pilot so I understand and have operated jet engines," Peppler said. "They're a defense contractors and I've done defense contracting on the government side for seven years. Program management for visual effects? Program management for jet engines? A lot of it is the same."

Lombardi said he expected the U.S. Chamber of Commerce would hold another local job fair for veterans early next year.

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