TAMPA — Faye Johnson isn't used to taking a breather, having worked a steady job since she turned 16.
First came 22 years with the Air Force, then immediate transition into civilian work while she raised four sons, spending the last seven years at International Paper.
At 7:15 a.m. Wednesday, 15 minutes after her shift started, Johnson was told that her supervisor position was being eliminated immediately. By Thursday morning, she was among nearly 350 veterans streaming through a job fair at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts oriented toward giving those with military service a leg up on getting back into the workforce.
"I could stay at home and feel sorry for myself all I want," she said, "but there's no jobs in my living room."
Unemployment for veterans during the recession has been running a full percentage point higher than the country's current jobless rate of 10.2 percent. It's particularly acute for the youngest vets — about 185,000 veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have moved from front lines to unemployment lines.
Creating jobs for former military has taken an elevated concern in Washington as well. President Barack Obama last month created a Council on Veterans Employment as part of an initiative encouraging federal agencies to recruit and train veterans. (On Thursday, simultaneous with the vet job fair in Tampa, Obama was holding a jobs summit in Washington soliciting ideas to attack rising unemployment.)
Event organizer RecruitMilitary, a Cincinnati-area group, has hosted more than 60 similar job fairs this year across the country.
Robert Walker, the group's director of career fairs, said many employers say they want to hire veterans. The challenge is convincing them that the civilian work experience some vets lack is more than offset by leadership and perseverance that they've learned in the military.
Attendees ran the gamut — from longtime civilians like Johnson to newbies like Michael Swartz, 25, who ended his six years of service with the Air Force this fall and is three weeks into a job search. Planning to attend Hillsborough Community College in January, Swartz was looking for options to help pay what the GI Bill won't cover.
Some, like Army veteran Ron Astorga and his wife, Heather, made the trek from Orlando only to leave disappointed.
Astorga had hoped there would be more explicit opportunities advertised, particularly ones where his higher clearances would give him an advantage. Instead, nearly half the booths were tied to colleges or training opportunities. And many of the most popular booths, such as the one touting careers at the Transportation Security Administration, steered applicants to go online rather than submit resumes in person.
"This is our first (job fair) and I'm willing to try another one," he said. "But if the next one is like this, I'll probably go online and save my gas money."
Among the few accepting resumes was Bank of America, whose recruiters were affixing stickers to the back of resumes noting details such as ability to relocate, date of availability and personal attributes they noticed.
Josh Renick, who spearheads a campaign to hire vets at the megabank, said applicants still have to apply online and there are hurdles getting through the process. But recruiters at job fairs will contact hiring managers to give candidates they like an improved chance.
"All things being equal, I'd say showing up at a job fair is a huge help," he said.
Still, the odds to rise to the top are steep.
For any single position at the bank, anywhere from 50 to 500 may be applying, he said.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8242. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jeffmharrington.