GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Heriberto Ruiz, 28, served in the Army for three years, including a year in Afghanistan.

The Pleasantville resident then used the GI Bill to get a degree in business from Richard Stockton College, but more than a year after graduation he still hasn’t found a good full-time job.

“I worked in a restaurant while I was going to school,” he said. “Now I’d like to get a good job, something with benefits. But it’s hard.”

So, dressed in a suit and tie, the Absecon resident came to the American Legion Veterans Resource and Opportunity Fair at Stockton on Friday, where he hoped having multiple services in one place might make the process a bit easier.

The event is an expansion of veteran job fairs held last year and was also open to colleges, and health and veterans service agencies to give veterans a one-stop location to learn about multiple options, said fair committee chairman Bob Looby, of Pittstown, Hunterdon County, past state commander of the American Legion.

The Legion partnered with Stockton and its veterans services office to organize the event, which also included a local Mr. and Ms. Veteran N.J. Competition that will be part of a state competition in the fall. A second event is scheduled for May 13 at the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum in Rio Grande.

Organizers said that while businesses may offer to give preference to veterans, the high unemployment in the area has made it hard for returning veterans and even active members of the local Air National Guard to find permanent employment.

National data for March from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show the unemployment rate for veterans at 6 percent, slightly better than the rate for non-veterans of 6.7 percent. Female veterans had the lowest unemployment rate at 4 percent.

Stardust Santiago, 34, of Egg Harbor Township, serves in the 177th Fighter Wing of the N.J. Air National Guard, but also works for the insurance company Aflac. She was recruiting for them at the event.

“We are looking for a few good agents,” she said.

Paul McIntyre, of Sweetwater, works with veterans who have been in the criminal justice system and have an even harder time finding employment.

“These are veterans who have struggled,” he said. “Most of them had no criminal records before the military, but came back into substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

He said some employers will give a chance to veterans who can show they are working to get their lives back together.

Aubrianna Fouts, program coordinator for the Retail, Hospitality and Tourism Talent Network of Southern New Jersey, based at Stockton, said they are trying to bridge the skills gap that seem to exist between employers who have jobs and job seekers.

Job seekers said they are always hopeful, but there is a lot of competition.

Colin Kelly, 29 left the Marines in 2008, worked in real estate, and attended Atlantic Cape Community College and Richard Stockton College where he is now in the Master’s of Business Administration program. He said GI Bill benefits have been great, but now he needs a full-time job, ideally in marketing or management.

Nick Kligmann, 26, of Upper Township, and Katherine Yunes, 23, of Galloway Township, both serve with the 177th Fighter Wing. The came in uniform to see what their futures might hold.

Yunes attends Rutgers Camden where she’s studying hospitality management, but she stopped to talk to the N.J. State Police recruiter.

“The casinos are not doing so good, so I’m looking at other things,” she said, citing her six years in the National Guard.

Kligmann has worked maintenance jobs, just re-enlisted in the National Guard, and works as many hours there as he can.

“I’m looking for anything,” he said of his job search. “But it’s not too promising. Maybe I’ll go to college.”

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241

Senior copy editor for the Press of Atlantic City. Have worked as a reporter, copy editor and news editor with the paper since 1985. A graduate of the University of Delaware.