Ray Parrish, who has spent much of his life helping veterans find jobs, was strolling the Fourth Annual Veterans Job and Benefits Fair at Roosevelt High School on Tuesday.
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"I got laid off two months ago," he said.
Mr. Parrish, nearly 60 years old, has been a counselor for a nonprofit group, "Vietnam Veterans Against The War," founded in 1967. He said his program's funding ran low and then his job ran out.
Mr. Parrish was among roughly a couple hundred veterans who showed up for a job fair in a city suffering from 9.4% unemployment as of September. Others I spoke with said they have been looking for jobs for months or years.
Others likely won't even show up for community job fairs, having joined the millions of Americans too discouraged to look for work. Go to a job fair and it is not difficult to see why they may feel discouraged.
"There was a lady applying here for a job" at the Chicago Transit Authority, said Cook County Commissioner Edwin Reyes. "She told me she had an MBA, and she was applying for a job at the CTA."
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Mr. Reyes, an Air Force veteran, has sponsored a veteran's job fair for four years. This year, at least, many of the employers who showed up were actually hiring rather than simply waving their flags, he said. Employers included Cook County Health & Hospital System, Office Max, Nordstrom, US Bank, Prudential, Pitney Bowes, and NAPA Auto Parts -- to name a few.
As the economy improves, it remains difficult to find a good fit between an employer and an employee. Mr. Reyes said his district has suffered a significant loss of manufacturing jobs over the past four years, but even as those jobs come back employers struggle to find applicants with the right skill.
"The push has been that everybody needs to go to college and get a degree," he said. "The reality is that not everybody wants to go to college and get a degree. There's nothing wrong with being a welder, a plumber, a carpenter. … There's nothing wrong with working in a factory. It's honest work. It's honest pay. And people can see the results of their labor."
Suddenly, a fire alarm sounded. Everyone at the job fair was forced to evacuate the gymnasium floor. Turns out, a faulty elevator motor had sparked and puffed out some smoke. Some stood out in the street as fire department officials checked the building. Many left, not waiting for the job fair to resume, perhaps taking it as some kind of sign.
"Vets I work with wouldn't find anybody in this room that will be able to help them with anything," Mr. Parrish said.
He specializes in helping vets with mental-health issues. "I'm pretty good with my tongue," he said. "I can talk to most mentally ill people about how to keep an apartment clean, how to store food and stuff like that."
He also specializes in helping vets with less-than-honorable discharges. These often go hand-in-hand with mental illness and they crush one's chances of a getting a job in the civilian world. "So many rules say you've got to have an honorable discharge to receive veteran's benefits," he said.
Thousands of soldiers come home each year with bad discharges, Mr. Parrish said. Many of these discharges result from behaviors that can be linked directly to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
PTSD is becoming a regular headline as the psychological effects of war take their toll on a generation of warriors. The U.S. Army recently reported that more soldiers lost their lives to suicides this year than on the battlefields in Afghanistan.
People suffering from PTSD also are likely to abuse alcohol or drugs, get in bar fights, get cited for driving under the influence of alcohol, or otherwise act out in ways that can lead to a less-than-honorable discharge, Mr. Parrish said.
"It is a sentence to poverty, homelessness and no benefits at all for literally thousands of veterans," he said. "They end up at the Cook County Hospital for health care instead of the Veteran's Administration."
Mr. Parrish said he is still helping Vietnam-era vets overcome this problem. In 2003, he ran across his first such case from Afghanistan. He said he can usually convince authorities to upgrade a vet's discharge status when he can show their infractions were due to PTSD.
As the U.S. draws down its forces, more soldiers with questionable military records will flood the job market. Already, there are more than Mr. Parrish can help.
Too bad, he's been laid off from his job.
(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. The column is published each Tuesday and Thursday at 9 a.m. ET. Contact Al at firstname.lastname@example.org or tellittoal.com)