Prospective employers and veterans service providers come together at Department of New Jersey job and resource fairs. (Photo by Steve B. Brooks)

New Jersey Legion providing jobs ... and much more

The American Legion Department of New Jersey has been instrumental in bringing jobs to veterans in the Garden State. In five years since it first hosted a job fair, the department has conducted more than 20 such hiring fairs. Thousands of veterans have come to the fairs in search of employments; hundreds have walked away with jobs.

Under the direction of 39-year Legionnaire Bob Looby and his Economics & Employment Committee, the department has partnered with state and local agencies, and various industry sectors to bring job opportunities to those who have transitioned out of the military.

Those partnerships have been critical in the success of the job fairs, Looby said. And that many of those agencies reached out to the Legion is an example of how the organization is known for “walking the talk,” said Looby, who served as department commander from 2010 to 2011. “If you say you’re going to do something, then go ahead and do it. It’s professionalism and branding,” Looby said.

Chuck Robbins, the veterans outreach coordinator for New Jersey’s Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and New Jersey’s Alternate National Executive Committeeman, has high praise for what Looby has been able to accomplish.

“I think what Bob Looby has done is incredible … for those getting out of the military, getting (them) jobs,” Robbins said. “It’s fantastic. We’re all excited about what he does. This is great publicity for The American Legion, but more importantly, it’s helping out veterans.”

But Looby is quick to point out it’s not all him. He said his committee’s vice chairs, Jim Scanlon and Ron Davie, are instrumental in the success of the fairs. “Thank God that the Department Executive Committee allowed the Employment Committee to have two vice chairs,” he said. “I could have never done it otherwise.”

One of the highlights of what New Jersey has accomplished, Looby said, was the May 2014 Port Jobs for Veterans Job Fair. During the Legion-managed event, more than 250 veterans got jobs.

“When you have a benchmark and a job fair blows that benchmark out of the water, you feel really good – especially since it was Legion-dedicated job fair,” Looby said. “You did your job. You can collect your bonus now, and that bonus is gratification.”

In the past few years, the job fairs have evolved into something more: Job and Resource Fairs. In addition to employers, the fairs now feature Department of Veterans Affairs health-care providers and counselors, housing experts and other resources to help veterans with issues they may be struggling with above and beyond employment.

Looby said Jim Scanlon, vice chairman of the department’s Economics & Employment Committee, was instrumental in helping in the transition.

“When I got involved three years ago, it was mostly Hiring Our Heroes in partnership with the (U.S.) Chamber of Commerce,” Scanlon said. “What we did is take on a greater scope. We started involving mental health professionals … asking them to show up as exhibitors. These men and women coming from Iraq and Afghanistan, and even some of the older types, are suffering still from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Those services are part of what The American Legion is all about.”

Those types of services were offered at a recent job and resource event in Lawrenceville, N.J. Samuel Alphin, a member of the Economics & Employment Committee and the commander of Post 414, was able to connect a veteran in need of housing with the right resources.

"On a scale of 1-10, I get a 10.5 – just to know that you helped somebody, just to see somebody who got help," Alphin said. "When you can help somebody get (help) … when they get information they can use, they light up."

At the Lawrenceville event, prospective employers included Rutgers University, PNC, New York Life, Starbucks and Prudential. Hilda Maaskant, a Prudential marketing associate, said being a part of the event is a chance to say thank you and recruit quality employees.

“Prudential is extremely proud of its veterans, and we really try to focus our efforts on hiring our veterans,” she said. “They have structure. They have discipline. They know what it is to actually put their shoulder to the stone and work. They’ve done so much for us, and we feel we need to pay it forward.”

Also featured at the Lawrenceville event was a women veterans forum. Presentations on VA health care geared specifically toward women veterans were followed with the chance for one-on-one discussions between attendees and VA staff.

Jean O’Brien, currently in her 26th year with U.S. Navy and U.S. Navy Reserve and a member of Legion Post 12 in Somerville, N.J., served as the Legion coordinator for the forum.

“There are still certain things that are personal,” said O’Brien, a member of New Jersey’s Economics & Employment Committee. “It’s more comfortable sometimes to actually talk to women. And the experiences are different for women in the military. Having a forum to have another female to talk to about what was good, what was bad (in the military) is very helpful.”

The Department of New Jersey also has teamed up with the State of New Jersey Parole Board, which now has a presence at the job and resource events.

“We’re recruiting veterans to be parole officers,” said Parole Board Chairman James Plousis, who attended the Lawrenceville event. “And also, when we go to all these events, we try to do an outreach with the employers to see if they would hire veteran parolees. Approximately 12 percent of the prison population are veterans. That correlates to 21,000 people in New Jersey in the criminal justice system are veterans. So we always try to have networks where we can get veteran parolees jobs. It’s critical we support The American Legion … on this endeavor. It helps us deliver some services to the vets.”