Judging from numbers alone, no one like Betzabet Jimenez or Robert Brunkalla would have been at Wednesday's Hiring Our Heroes job fair for veterans in Omaha.
Jimenez, an Army National Guard soldier, and Brunkalla, a retired Marine, already have jobs, so they don't appear among the small fraction of Nebraska veterans who are unemployed.
With state and national attention given to the issue of veteran employment — Gov. Dave Heineman called a press conference Tuesday just to promote the Omaha job fair — only 2.9 percent of the state's veterans were unemployed in 2012, even lower than the state's 3.9 percent total unemployment rate. Both rates were the second-lowest in the nation.
The picture is improving nationally, too. Seven percent of all veterans were unemployed in 2012, better than 8.3 percent the year before and the overall 2012 rate of 7.8 percent.
Opportunities are so plentiful for veterans that Heineman, an Army veteran, is advertising the state's jobs elsewhere. Last fall the Nebraska Department of Labor produced a video with Heineman touting “high-wage, high-skill and high-demand jobs” here for vets.
And now the department is hopeful that a new U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation initiative called Fast Track will send retiring and returning veterans this way. The initiative identified the 100 fastest-growing job markets in the U.S., including Lincoln and Omaha, and runs lists of job openings in those cities.
Behind the impressive jobless statistics, however, are veterans like Omahans Jimenez, 21, and Brunkalla, 45, who were among about 200 sharply dressed service members who came to the fair Wednesday to find opportunities with some of the 75 employers represented.
Both are looking for better jobs than they already have and are contending with the unique challenges that arise as service members move from the military to the civilian world, including a lack of formal education to back up their skills and difficulty translating military experience into language that civilian hiring managers understand.
Jimenez joined the Guard after graduating from Bellevue East in 2010. The first in her family to serve in the military, she said the promise of college tuition and benefits were appealing after she “slacked off” her senior year in high school.
“Being in the National Guard really keeps me on my feet, it keeps me on track,” she said.
But in between weekend and summer training exercises, Jimenez is looking for more out of her career than her current job, where she is paid on commission to cold-call people and persuade them to respond to surveys. “A lot of the jobs, I've heard you need a degree,” she said.
Jimenez enrolled at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and hopes a degree will help her turn her Guard experience as a water treatment specialist into a career with the Metropolitan Utilities District or another utility.
Younger veterans like Jimenez have faced higher unemployment rates. Post-9/11 vets in Nebraska today have comparable unemployment rates to vets of earlier wars. Nationally, the vets most struggling to find jobs are 18- to 24-year-olds, with one in five unemployed.
“One of the barriers might be just needing some civilian work experience or some civilian education,” said Kristine Hulse, veterans program coordinator for the State Department of Labor.
She said retraining assistance and other programs are available to help veterans prepare for a career. Nationally, younger veterans tend to return to their hometowns after their service, even if jobs there are scarce.
“If you're from west Texas, go home and visit, but then maybe think about relocating to Austin or Dallas,” said Kim Morton, spokeswoman for the U.S. Chamber Foundation, organizer of the Hiring Our Heroes fairs.
Veterans of all ages have a hard time communicating their experience to HR managers, a problem Brunkalla tried to solve by buying a reference book that offered corporate terminology comparable to specific military roles. He peppered his resume with generic, corporate-friendly phrases.
“I worked my way up the corporate ladder, so to speak, in the Marine Corps,” he said, and now is hoping for a position in management where he gets to make some of the tough decisions he did as an information systems administrator and major in the Marines.
Resume coach Beth Stewardson, who helped Brunkalla at the fair, said his resume was in good shape. She suggested he list his military awards.
That was hard advice to take for someone coming from a military culture where leaders give the credit for accomplishments to the grunts who did the work.“She said, 'You need to grow your ego.' ”
Fellow retired Marine Rod de Zafra, also 45 and originally from Colorado, is trying the same tactics with his resume. He is hoping to win a corporate leadership position while working part time as a flight instructor.
To an employer, he said, “I'm just a dude out looking for a job. I'm not storming the earth like I used to.” By the end of the fair, he said he had realized that it might take time before he found what he was looking for.
But other veterans who have been successful finding civilian work said it takes persistence.
Georgia native Windel Davis, now a recruiter at Sterling Computers and retired from the Air Force out of Offutt Air Force Base, said he looked for a job “like it was a job” when he left the service.
He went on interviews for jobs he didn't expect to get, just for the practice. He networked at church, went to job fairs and told friends he wanted a job. He tailored his resume to fit the requirements of individual jobs.
He landed a job at Boys Town, where he worked for nearly 10 years.
A Hiring Our Heroes job fair like the one held Wednesday led directly to Michael Schweitzer's current role as a maintenance and manufacturing line supervisor at beauty supply manufacturer Marianna Industries, where he said he's been promoted twice and loves his job.
The 44-year-old former Air Force mechanic from California served in Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, but even with supervisory experience struggled to make the move to a civilian career when he left the service in 2007.
He found retail management wasn't for him. “In the civilian world I'm the leader, yes, but on the other hand, you have to be a little more tactful.”
He couldn't break through to other types of management positions, with his resume automatically rejected for a lack of formal higher education. So Schweitzer earned a bachelor's degree in geography from UNO while serving as a stay-at-home dad. It was two months after the hiring fair when he heard about a position at Marianna, and he believes his persistence paid off.
“Be patient,” he said, “that's the biggest thing. Just be patient.”