By Steve B. Brooks – March 29, 2012

When Tony Segalla left the Air Force and wanted to pursue a career in the financial industry, he wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms. He and fellow veteran Mark Powell – both Chicago-area financial advisors for Edward Jones – manned a booth for four hours on March 28 to make sure fellow veterans aren’t getting the same treatment.

The pair participated in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Hiring Our Heroes job fair at the Chicago Hilton. The fair – a celebration, of sorts, of the Chamber’s one-year anniversary of the program – featured 135 local and national companies. More than 900 veterans and spouses preregistered to attend the fair; dozens more showed up during the course of the fair.

“When I applied (at one financial company), they told me, ‘You’re not a salesman,’” said Segalla, who spent 10 years on active duty and another 10 in the Air Force Reserves before retiring in 2008. “But Edward Jones looked at me and said, ‘With your military background, we know the ethics you have. We know the standards you have.’ That’s why I’m here. You can teach someone to be a salesman. But when you hire a veteran, you know you are getting a certain set of values, ethics and standards, which can help you become an entrepreneur.

“Mark and I don’t get paid to be here. We’re not recruiters. But it’s a way to help out some of these guys.”

Launched in March 2011, Hiring Our Heroes conducted nearly 120 career fairs over the past year, putting on events in 45 states and helping put more than 8,500 veterans and spouses in jobs. The Chamber has partnered with NBC News to spread the word about the program. NBC’s The Today Show did a segment on the program March 28, broadcasting from the USS Intrepid in New York and doing reports from Chicago and Fort Hood.

“When we announced our partnership with The Today Show and NBC, and we brought on the Legion, the VFW, the (Illinois) Comptroller’s Office, it seemed like a perfect storm of partnerships to make it as successful as it is today,” said Marady Leary, director of events for Hiring Our Heroes. “(The relationship with NBC) is very critical because there’s only so much marketing we can do through the local partnerships. To get to the masses, we need an outlet like NBC.”

But organizations like The American Legion are critical to Hiring Our Heroes’ success, Leary said. “We’re really trying to partner with the Legion posts across the nation to help them host hiring fairs in their hometowns. There are a lot of businesses that are looking to go into rural communities that we might not have saturated yet. Over the next year, 200 of the 400 (Hiring Our Heroes) events are going to be Legion events.”

The Legion was one of the partners in the Chicago event. Department of Illinois Legionnaires manned two booths at the career, handing out literature on Legion programs and answering questions on Department of Veterans Affairs benefits.

“Job fairs are wonderful events for returning veterans coming home to no jobs,” said Department of Illinois Vice Commander Wayne Wagner. “We’re here to help in any way that we can … and get the employers and unemployed veterans together, and provide those employers with very well-qualified and very well-trained employees through the job fair.

“We’re here to inform the veterans of their benefits available and that there’s a wide variety. If they’re disabled, we have service officers to help them with their claims. We’re also explaining any programs The American Legion has for their dependents if they need help in any way.”

Working the job fair meant a busy day for Department of Illinois VA&R Director Wayne Macejak, who spoke with several veterans who had no idea they were eligible for VA benefits or that their benefits could increase as their condition worsened. “That’s the reason I’m doing this,” Macejak said.

It was an impressive lineup of employers manning booths at the Hilton – Walmart, Chase, Farmers Insurance, Allstate, NBC and Northrop-Grumman, among others. Many of the employers at the fair spoke of the value of hiring veterans and the skills they bring to the civilian workplace.

“This isn’t us doing something for the veteran,” said Eric Chibnik, senior vice president of GE Capital, Americas in Chicago. “This pool of talent, they have the characteristics and the traits and the skills that we need in all of our divisions – whether it’s our industrial side or our capital side. These folks, they’re disciplined, they’ve faced unbelievably difficult conditions, they’ve learned to work great in a team environment, and all those basic skills and character traits are vital to finding great employees. It’s really an ideal talent pool for us. This is a big win for us.”

Jen Mahone, Inclusion Practices Specialists for CDW, saaid what draws her company to career fairs such as Hiring our Heroes also is the talent pool of applicants. “One of the things that attracts CDW to the military hiring is that they have many transferable skill sets that directly relate to the technology industry and the careers that we offer,” she said.

Job-seeking advice also was available. Navistar and local volunteers worked together to provide résumé -writing tips and interview coaching. “We also have what we call veterans mentors,” said Jan Barbour, who volunteers in Veterans Community Relations for Naperville, Ill. “These are hand-picked veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea, who are here to talk to veterans. These are people who have been successful in their private lives who can talk to the veterans, nod and say, ‘I understand what you’re saying. I’ve been there.’

“Translating their military expertise and the jargon – making that transition is really hard. It’s hard to translate sniper into something a business will appreciate. We’re just trying to not only hire veterans, but hire a veteran who’s going to be a good fit for your job, and that the veteran knows what they want and what they’re looking for.”

For U.S. Army veteran Martin McGrenera, the fair was an excellent opportunity to test the employment waters with a wide variety of employers. The 31-year-old McGrenera, who served in the Army from 2000 to 2008, currently is majoring in computer science at Northeastern Illinois University while working part time. “It was very encouraging,” he said. “There can’t be enough job fairs. There’s so many people every day getting out of the military facing the same thing we’re all facing.”

The March 28 event also received support from the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn, the Office of the State Comptroller, the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program, Student Veterans of America and other entities.