URBANA — A Marine who fought a tour in a country that's riddle with gunfire now spends a lot of time behind bulletproof glass at a convenience store.
Jason Klinefelter did five years in the Corps, a tour in Iraq and spent two years in Okinawa. He's been studying at Parkland College for three years toward a degree in surgical technology. Now, though, he makes minimum wage at Super Pantry and joined the Army Reserve to supplement his income.
He came to the veterans' job fair at the National Guard Armory on University Avenue to try to figure out what else is out there. The organizers from the Illinois departments of Veterans' Affairs and Employment Security know that the economy has made job hunts difficult for civilians, too, but particularly for soldiers who have spent a year or more overseas.
They have been out of touch with the mainland and not exposed to the job market. In the time they've been gone, the economy has changed — even some simple facts of life are different. That's why the Illinois Department of Transportation has set up two tables among a group covering the broad floor of the main hall: One to talk about career opportunities and another to tell ex-service men and women about the new rules of the road.
When the now-28-year-old Klinefelter left the service, he spent a few months unemployed before he started taking what he thought were menial jobs in fast food. He landed at Super Pantry — he thinks it's a good job, but he approaches the Paramount Staffing table hoping for something better.
Lorianne Bauer, the Urbana branch manager, will explain to him that they offer mostly light industrial jobs that pay close to minimum wage. They need people who can be on their feet for a long time.
Veterans are particularly suited for the work, Bauer says, because "they know how to follow rules and work."
She is blunt with Klinefelter — she knows she's not doing either him or herself any favors if she makes the work out to seem better than it really is. Klinefelter smiles and shakes his head. He doesn't take an application.
That's how a lot of the jobs at today's fair are. With a trowel, hammer and hardhat laid out in front of him, a staffer in a camouflage trucker hat and white beard at the Brickworkers and Allied Craftworkers union table will tell one of the passersby: "If you're a hardworker, you don't mind getting out there, getting dirty a little bit, it's great work."
One group is looking for truckers. Some of these guys drove transport vehicles through minefields. Now companies need drivers to navigate big rigs through Chicago traffic.
Law enforcement and security agencies have targeted the veterans' job fair, too. Champaign, Urbana and the Illinois State Police are grouped, waiting for soldiers to come by with interest in joining the local forces. Klinefelter heads to the G4S Secure Solutions table, where he finds a sympathetic face.
Clad in brown pants and a yellow shirt and secured with a U.S. Army-printed tie, Keith Dowd, the human resources manager for the security agency, is a veteran himself. He did two tours in the Gulf War and six months in Iraq, but now his close-crop haircut is starting to recede.
He was luckier than some of the other veterans. Dowd didn't have any trouble finding a job after he retired, but he knows the economy has been tough.
"I can relate to what they've been through and what they're coming home to," he says.
He thinks there are "mixed reasons" why veterans have a hard time finding good jobs. The job market itself is the main reason; beyond that, "it's all political."
"How many hours a week would you like to work?" he now asks Klinefelter. Twenty or so is his response — he needs to work around school.
"Do you need, like, a security clearance?" Klinefelter asks. Not really, Dowd says.
Maybe it isn't the perfect match, but the interest is there. Dowd knows Klinefelter is disciplined and will be good at taking orders. He offers Klinefelter a contact form, and the younger soldier fills it out.