When South Carolina Army National Guard Spec. Anthony Raines returned home after a year hunting roadside bombs in Afghanistan, he thought the construction skills he’d honed since his youth would help him find a job. But the housing market had imploded and jobs had evaporated.
“I’ve done just about everything there is for building a house,” said Raines, 28. “But when I got back, I couldn’t find anything.”
Raines said he went through all the savings he’d gleaned during his year overseas, and ended up taking a six-month job in a daycare run by a friend. “It just wasn’t for me. Those kids!” Raines said, with a roll of his eyes.
His Guard colleagues stepped in, drawing Raines into a new program that helps their members freshen resumes and bolster job interview skills. Then, they are put in touch with employers seeking workers.
Raines is now working with the Shaw Group on the construction of nuclear electric generating units near Jenkinsville
Over the past year, the S.C. Guard has gotten jobs for 672 of its unemployed members, bringing a 16 percent unemployment rate down to around 4 percent, officials say. Soldiers and civilians working on the program go so far as to schedule job interviews for soldiers and airmen even before they’ve returned from overseas deployments.
Many of the Guard’s 11,000 men and women have welcomed their many deployments amid the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years, since it provided a full-time paycheck and benefits for their family members back in South Carolina. Units have deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Kuwait.
Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston led the Guard’s largest single unit overseas deployment since World War II in 2007, when 1,800 soldiers from the Newberry-based 218th Brigade Combat Team deployed to Afghanistan for a year, primarily to train local Afghan security forces.
Now the pace of overseas deployments will be declining, putting the Guard members back to a more normal part-time routine of one major deployment every four or five years, Livingston said. So finding work on the home front was key for his part-time soldiers.
“We didn’t want job fair after job fair, giving people web page listings and 1-800 numbers. We wanted to go deeper than that,” said the two-star general. “We wanted it to be relationship-building, that’s how things are done in South Carolina. It’s that word of mouth, it’s reaching out and finding people.”
Livingston, who ran his family’s multi-state electrical firm Gregory Electric while in his civilian life, said he’d known from his own experience “that even when the state has an eight or nine percent unemployment, you still might have trouble finding the right employees.”
South Carolina’s unemployment hit a high of 12 percent in November and December of 2009. In October, state unemployment fell to 8.6 percent, mirroring a nationwide trend of falling jobless numbers.
Livingston said a key to their new Guard system has been asking soldiers and airmen to find out whether they’ve had trouble finding work, and then tracking down employers with openings.
“Too many of our people are too shy to put in for unemployment. They figure they don’t want to take anything,” said Livingston.
Elisa Edwards is the civilian director of the new out-reach, which is known as the Service Member and Family Care Program. Edwards called it “a very personalized approach to making sure jobs are a good fit.”