Veterans look for local jobs

Army veteran Lawanda Levell.

Lawanda Levell served as an Army supply sergeant in Iraq. It may sound like a quiet job, but she was posted with some Marines, and it was anything but safe.

"We were getting hit with rounds every day," she said in describing having to race for the safety of fortified bunkers when mortar rounds began to hit. "We lost a couple of soldiers in our unit."

After coming home in 2009, Levell, of Charleston, hoped to quickly find civilian work. But like thousands of other returned veterans, that hasn't been the case.

"Sometimes you regret getting out," she said.

Levell was among the hundreds of former military members to visit the Charleston Veterans Affairs office's annual "Welcome Home" job fair Thursday. Many spoke of the frustrations of a sour economy and possessing skills that don't readily translate to the best-paying, most-competitive jobs.

"Me being a paratrooper, what kind of jobs are out there in the private sector?" asked Christian Rhoad, 28, of West Ashley, who served in the 82nd Airborne in Iraq.

Since leaving the Army a few years back, Rhoad, who is married, has mostly done construction work. But he's hungry to do almost any type of skilled labor, no matter what training is required. Like most people with military backgrounds, he understands what it means to drill.

"I can learn to do anything," Rhoad said.

Labor statistics on former U.S. military members shows that despite their sacrifice, the unemployment rate for post-9/11 warriors remains a problem that could get worse, especially when more troops cycle out following the finale in Iraq. By the numbers, August unemployment was at 9.4 percent for veterans who've served since September 2001, slightly lower than the 9.6 percent for all Americans.

And while the August stats show the out-of-work rate for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans actually declined from July, one possible reason could be that younger veterans have simply stopped looking.

Tonya Lobbestael, public affairs officer for the Charleston VA, said Thursday's event on board the aircraft carrier York town at Patriots Point drew more potential employers (59) and visitors than last year's when at least 500 attended. About half that many were in the door during the first hour or so Thursday, she said.

"The nice thing is, these are companies that are specifically looking for people with a military background," she said. Officials haven't tracked how many of last year's job fair attendees actually landed jobs, partially because it could take months for someone to be hired and put on the payroll after an interview.

Among the employers that set up booths Thursday were several colleges and police forces, along with banks, hotels, employment agencies, a shipyard and high-tech electronic companies.

Some potential employers were optimistic. James Tanton, a program manager with Honeywell in Charleston, said the company wants to hire as many as 40 people before December, and that military applicants with computer backgrounds make the best recruits, in part, because they can get and keep security clearances.

"Normally they're the cream of the crop," he said of experienced vets, adding "You don't have to worry if they are going to show up to work on time."

Some of those looking for civilian work Thursday were doing so as they transition out of the military. Russell Gardner, 38, of Ladson, is preparing to leave the Air Force, where he worked on the airplane team flight line.

"I would say I'm hopeful," he said, noting that the Boeing expansion will stimulate opportunities, but it also raises the competition level.

"There's a lot of people in Charleston looking for the same jobs I am," he said.