Aboard the retired cruise ship Queen Mary -- a World War II veteran redeployed as a tourist attraction -- former members of the armed services Thursday got an extra ration of employment help.
But, between a sagging economy and years of specialized experience, many veterans say they still can't find decent jobs or feel pigeonholed into low-paying fitness, security or law enforcement positions.
Behind a table spread with brochures and flanked by posters advertising jobs with Military Sealift Command, a civilian military transportation company, recruiter Sarah Little smiled at passing veterans.
But when they moved on, the happy front vanished. Most of the applicants milling around the Long Beach job fair weren't prepared for the rigorous application process for the seafaring positions she had to offer, Little said.
The struggling domestic job market limits their options even more, she said.
"When I started doing this five years ago, I'd get people who were almost in tears because the outlook was so bad," she said. "Now that desperation seems to be back. These veterans want so badly to go to work, and there's no question that organizations want to hire them. It's just bad timing that the economy is so awful."
The forecast for young veterans seems grim.
Some return to civilian life with physical injuries and psychological damage. Many come back to families that need their financial support, but find that the skills they gained in the military don't carry over to the current job market. Their only options are unstable, entry-level positions.
Recent research by the Department of Veterans Affairs suggests that today's young veterans need more help making the transition to civilian jobs, given that 23% of veterans in 2005 were out of the workforce, up from 10% in 2000.
More than 60% of employers say that veterans need more help to compete with civilian applicants, according to a November survey by Military.com, a division of the job recruitment website Monster.com. Of the 81% of returning service members who reported feeling unprepared for job-hunting, 76% said they didn't know how to turn military skills into civilian positions.
Daniel M. Ortiz, department service director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S., says the military misleads young recruits into believing that a stint in the armed forces turns them into attractive job candidates.
"I don't put it past our military to spin stories that soldiers will get the best training and, when they get out, they'll have the world at their feet," said Ortiz, a veteran of the first Gulf War. "It is a false promise."
The transitional assistance program run by the Department of Defense is insufficient, Ortiz said. And when veterans get intimidated by the lack of job opportunities, many give up on finding civilian work and reenlist, he said.
Discouraged by an unsuccessful job search, with no gas money to go to interviews or college, Fabian Serrano, 27, of Riverside County, said he was tempted to rejoin the Marines.
He doubts he will ever find his ideal job as a cartoon designer, or any other worthwhile post. And with a wife, parents and younger brother to support, Serrano said he can't take a minimum-wage position and hope for a promotion later.
A fellow Marine persuaded the sergeant, who served in Iraq and is now in the Reserve, to attend his first job fair. But Serrano had no resume -- only a high school diploma and nearly a decade of experience shooting cannons and working as a military policeman.
"I have no good sense of direction of where to start and where to go. None of my experience transfers," he said. "There's nothing out here for me, so I might as well go back to active duty and stay there."
Thursday's free event was the 23rd of more than 100 fairs scheduled around the country this year by Cincinnati-based RecruitMilitary. As many as 700 candidates, most of whom served in Iraq or Afghanistan, attend, said Jasen O. Williams, who organizes the company's West Coast job fairs.
RecruitMilitary also operates an online database of more than 190,000 self-registered job seekers. The wide range of online resources is an advantage that older veterans never had, he said.
"Some of us got out 15 years ago, and there was very little support -- just a handshake and you were gone, flailing on your own," he said. "Today, corporate America is stepping up to the plate, and we try to do everything we can to help veterans understand the avenues available to connect with jobs."
Among those recruiting Thursday were the city of Los Angeles, Regent University in Virginia, US Airways and MetLife Inc. But far more visible were the rows of representatives from police departments and home-security firms.
"We're always impressed with the veterans," said Pedro Cariaga, a recruiter with Bally Total Fitness Corp. who said he had hired several former service members as personal trainers and fitness coaches. He was also hiring for sales positions.
Another member of Serrano's unit, Oscar Flores, 29, of Los Angeles, said he worked as a Sprint Nextel Corp. representative to tide him over temporarily. He has been scouring the Internet and newspapers for better jobs.
The former corporal, who lacks a college degree and spent eight years as a mechanic and a firearms instructor, knows his prospects aren't exactly exciting.
"I'm pretty confident I'll be able to find another job, it just won't be the one I want," he said. "I'll just have to settle for another steppingstone."