When James Davis retired from the Army in 2010 after 12 tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he managed to avoid the dismal job market by heading straight back to school on his veterans’ benefits.
Davis, browsing at a Southeast Washington job fair Saturday, said now that the economy is rebounding, he hopes to find work as a heating and air conditioning technician after he completes courses in June. But he said he realizes why other veterans have so much trouble reentering civilian life.
“Most of these guys got hurt up over there,” said Davis, 49. “It’s really tough. . . . I understand where they are coming from. It’s hard. But you’ve got to get out there and do what you need to do.”
Hundreds of people attended Saturday’s job fair, which was sponsored by Temple of Praise, the District megachurch that has hosted the semiannual event for six years. Saturday’s event focused on the needs of military veterans, whose 2011 unemployment rates were well above national averages, but it was open to all job-seekers.
Christophy Askew, deacon of the church’s economic ministry, said interest in the event has continued to grow even as the national economic picture has improved. The need for jobs and training remains great in poorer areas of the District, such as Southeast, he said.
“It’s starting to pick up a little bit, but we still have a ways to go,” Askew said.
The District's has one of the widest income gaps between rich and poor among the nation’s cities, Census Bureau data show. And unemployment in Ward 8 was 25 percent in January, three times the national average, and 16 percent in neighboring Ward 7.
Daron Newburn, a life coach from Temple Hills who volunteered at the job fair, said people who don’t have high school diplomas or do have criminal records are struggling most.
“There’s a certain population that’s left out of the recovery,” Newburn said. “It’s still challenging.”
Nearby, Dianne Tucker, 53, leafed through application forms and other material she picked up from some of the roughly 50 employers on hand. The Alexandria resident lost her position as a civilian budget analyst with a Defense Department contractor in June. In October, her husband lost his job as a delivery driver. The couple has been scraping by on unemployment benefits and donations from food banks.
“It’s tension. It’s stress,” Tucker said.
Tucker estimated that she spends eight hours a day on the search for work — going on interviews and combing message boards and social networking sites for leads.
“I’m not going to lie to you. I do get down sometimes,” she said.
Sometimes, on morning walks through the neighborhood, her spirits will flag, she said, especially if it’s dark and cloudy. She said she uses motivational music to keep her mood up.
“For me, if you stay in the race, you’ll win,” she said. “If you get discouraged and give up, you’ll fall by the wayside. I believe there is a job out there for me.”
Outside, Trey Miller, 29, of the District paused to chat with friends. At the job fair, he had scored a donated pink shirt and a tie for his next job interview. Since he was laid off from his groundskeeper’s job about a year ago, he has worked as a temporary employee in construction, flooring and painting. He dreams of having a career.
“I’ll do just about anything, for real,” he said. “Just got to keep striving, I guess. Do better. That’s it.”
Next to him, his new shirt and tie spun hopefully in the spring breeze.