Benning braces for big job fair

Shhhhhhh! The U.S. Secret Service will be at Fort Benning Thursday.

But it's not because President Bush is making a clandestine visit with the troops. Instead, the 141-year-old agency famed for protecting our political leaders and candidates at all costs will be here looking for new employees.

In fact, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and no fewer than 32 law enforcement agencies — literally from across the nation — will be on hand for what is shaping up to be the biggest job fair Columbus and Fort Benning have ever seen.

"The law enforcement is there only because they like the military. Law enforcement and military go hand in hand," Walt Pollock said of the disciplined nature of soldiers who are used to taking and giving orders, while carrying them out with precision.

Pollock is a veterans employment counselor with the Georgia Department of Labor's Columbus Career Center. He's also the person in charge of organizing the job fair, which is sponsored by the Association of the United States Army.

More than 170 companies, agencies, educational institutions and health-care organizations have committed to attend the annual AUSA Job Fair from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday at Fort Benning. That tops last year's high of about 150 employers.

"We've never had a job fair in this community this size — never," Pollock said.

Those in military uniform — or shall we say those preparing to put away those uniforms for civilian attire and careers — are the prime draw for the police departments and highway patrol commands that will be at the fair. But the general public is also welcome Thursday.

"I think it's indicative of (employers) knowing that the military are people they can depend on and this is a place to get good help. I think that's why they're coming from all over the United States," Pollock said of employers traveling to the fair.

Police departments from the major cities of Baltimore; Kansas City, Louisville, Ky.; Omaha, Neb.; and St. Petersburg, Fla., will be represented.

But if cuffing and booking ’em isn't your cup of tea, perhaps health care, insurance, teaching, banking, sales or truck driving might be. Plenty of employers from those sectors will be there as well.

This is the 14th year for the AUSA Job Fair, which moved from Fort Benning's Main NCO Club to Infantry Hall — the post's headquarters — in 1997.

But this year the event has been moved to Freedom Hall (Bldg. 2411) at Lawson Army Airfield. The 75,000-square-foot airport terminal is much more expansive than the job fair's previous homes, having opened in early 2005 to give departing and arriving soldiers more elbow room. The terminal can apparently hold as many as 1,500 troops at one time.

"We've gotten too big," Pollock said of the venue change. "Last year we had 150 companies and we were jammed in Infantry Hall like sardines. This year we're at 171 and Freedom Hall became available and it's a better looking venue." This year's AUSA Job Fair comes with the Columbus metropolitan unemployment rate slipping to 4.8 percent in March, down from 5.3 percent the month before. That compares to the state's overall rate of 4 percent.

The city's overall work force grew by 200 jobs in March, hitting 123,000. Statewide, that ranks it behind the work force totals of Atlanta (2.4 million), Augusta (216,400) and Savannah (158,500).

The Columbus-area economy shouldn't experience any major changes in the coming year, said Mikell Fryer, the Labor Department's regional director for southwest Georgia.

The service sector will continue to burgeon as retail, hotel and dining offerings materialize, he said. The city also is gearing up for an expansion at Fort Benning that could add more than 30,000 people to the metro area's current population of nearly 300,000.

The increase is expected to begin in 2008 and may take until 2011 to complete. But it will take time, he said. "You're not going to have 15,000 people just show up one day," Fryer said. "I see our change being a very gradual."