CONCORD -- The "Honor a Hero, Hire a Vet" Job Fair at the Concord Hilton Hotel was a beehive of activity with more than 500 military veterans circling 60 potential employers and 23 resource agencies.
California has the largest number of veterans in the nation. Although, by law, the fair was open to civilians, the Oct. 31 event was a tactical veterans-into-jobs operation, from start to finish.
Before the employment-seeking veterans entered the ballroom, participating employers listened to half-time-worthy pep talks from Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, and Cmdr. Julie Mitchell of the U.S. Coast Guard Pacific Area.
Miller has a legislative track record supporting bills aimed at providing vets and their families with education and job benefits. He was a leading proponent of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill passed in 2008 and amended in 2009.
"I'm here as a cheerleader," he said. "We're excited about the tax credit incentive to put these well-trained individuals to work."
Employment Development Department Chief Diane Ferrari explained that a Dec. 31 deadline loomed for the tax break.
"It's up to $9,600 for hiring a vet," she said. "Please hire a veteran today!"
Mitchell shared a personal perspective on the impact of academic and employment resources aimed at veterans.
"I've been on active duty or serving as a reservist for 24 years. I have a 20-year old daughter who's transferring to San Francisco State University with the help of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. We couldn't have afforded that, without this bill," she said, receiving a burst of applause.
In an interview following her public comments, Mitchell said that in addition to allowing veterans to transfer benefits to their children, the bill also helps employers with retraining costs.
"Vets bring unique skills and a core respect for duty," she said. "They adapt quickly and if they are like me, with retirement benefits they collect, they're not looking for a high-stress, million-dollar job."
As a female job seeker, Mitchell finds the biggest obstacle is a perception that she is overqualified.
"They say, "You're a commander ... and you're a woman!' They're surprised, because in the corporate world, women don't often stay long enough to rise to this level."
Learning to "speak civilian" is another challenge Mitchell shares with her fellow veterans. Trained to avoid bragging and to speak in "we" instead of "I," she said veterans need coaching to stand out in today's workforce.
Armed with resumes and references, a flood of civilian-suited veterans took to the job fair floor or attended workshops on job search methodology and networking.
Josh McKay, a 36-year old Antioch resident who is waiting to hear about a possible job, chose to hedge his bets and attend. He was accompanied by Elise Amaya, a field representative for Miller who is assisting his application process.
"I'm 40 percent disabled, after I broke my ankle during a fire fight in Afghanistan," McKay explained. "They're helping expedite my paperwork. I know I can do the job, but there's a lot involved."
Shawn Hansen, EDD's local veteran representative, agreed.
"Veterans don't know about our One Stop Career centers. But even when they do find out, we don't want to ask for help. There's a military machismo to want to do it on our own."
Hansen, slipping instinctively into "we" speak, was in the U.S. Marine Corps and stationed in Oahu during the 1990s. Like others at the event, he said veterans are good at making long-term commitments and military life prepares them for jobs requiring multiple skills, but they lack the language to promote themselves.
Richard DeGraffenreid, representing wholesale distributor Platt Electrical Supply, said the 111 branches of his company have collectively hired more than 200 veterans during the last two years.
"They know about consequences, so they show up on time and have mutual core values with our company," he said.
Norene Marinelli, an officer with the San Jose Police Department for 15 years, said her employer was specifically interested in hiring female veterans.
"They're in shape, educated, accustomed to jobs with physical contact and used to working with men," she said. "Plus, women are better communicators, calmer -- without the big egos that can stir up trouble when dealing with drug-addicted people."
Sarah LaCasse, of Vacaville, was back in the United States after a tour in Korea and a seven-month deployment in Bagram, Afghanistan.
"I learned a lot of responsibility," she said, about her experience. "I suppose I'd tell an employer that I've supervised people in high-stress environments."
Her friend Michelle Jacobs, a reservist also separating from the military and seeking a job, said the excellent training she received while in the reserve allowed her to feel confident and supported. Now, competing for jobs with civilians, she confessed to being less certain.
That is, until DHL Express human resource agent Tosha Owens responded enthusiastically to her resume.
"This job fair is just what we need," she said to LaCasse, who jotted down Owens' instructions for completing an online application.
Veterans, civilians and employers can receive more information by contacting the state of California Employment Development Department at www.edd.ca.gov.