COLUMBIA, SC — Sgt Maj. Chris Fletcher was a teenager the last time he had a civilian job.
The Peachtree City, Ga., native, now 40, flipped burgers at McDonald’s. He worked as a busboy at a convention center. And he was a clerk at a convenience store.
In 1993, Fletcher joined the U.S. Army. Since then he has been deployed to Bosnia and Macedonia, twice to Afghanistan and numerous times to Kuwait, rising to the highest non-commissioned rank. Now, 20 years later, with a wife and 18- and 15-year-old daughters, he is retiring from U.S. Army Central in Sumter. He’s entering the civilian job market with a little trepidation.
“It’s stepping out into the unknown,” said Fletcher. “The Army is all I know.”
He is not alone.
With the military set to be radically reduced after the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands of soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines will have to step out of a uniform and into a business suit during a tough, post-recession job climate. They face challenges translating their military skills to civilian jobs – from writing a civilian resume, to just speaking English instead of using prolific military acronyms.
In South Carolina, an estimated 300 to 400 active duty service members from the state’s bases are expected to look for civilian jobs here annually over the next few years. In addition, 200 to 300 service members a year are expected to come here from posts outside the Palmetto State.
Also, with all U.S. combat troops expected to come home from Afghanistan by the end of this year, hundreds of S.C. Guard and reserve troops will have to find civilian employment while still serving part time.
“A lot of these folks shouldered a heavy load in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Brig Gen. Bradley Becker, commanding general of Columbia’s Fort Jackson, the nation’s largest military training base. “They have a lot of experience and are tested in battle. But while they are experienced and tested, they haven’t been in the job market.”
Numerous programs are available to help veterans find jobs, such as the Defense Department’s active duty Transition Assistance Program, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Hiring Our Heroes job fairs and Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve.
Now, Gov. Nikki Haley has expanded to active duty military an initiative launched by the S.C. National Guard that has cut unemployment among Guard members to 3.9 percent from 16 percent in 2011.
Called Operation Palmetto Employment, the program coordinates all public and private efforts in the state to match veterans with employers.
“It was the best way to create a one-stop service for veterans,” Haley said. “But it also allows companies that appreciate veterans (a way) to employ them.”
How deep will cuts be?
The U.S. military has about 1.4 million active duty soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. There are another 850,000 troops in the National Guard and reserves.
About 170,000 troops leave the military each year due to normal attrition, such as retirements. But as the war in Afghanistan winds down – all combat troops are expected to be out of the Southwest Asian country by the end of this year – more troops will be forced to leave the military as the different branches of the service contract.
The Army will see the deepest cuts; but, how deep is still uncertain.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel earlier this month announced that the Obama administration wants to reduce the size of the Army to 440,000 or 450,000 soldiers. That’s down from a war-time high of 570,000.
But those drawdowns are less than the automatic, across-the-board cuts called for as a result of the debt ceiling standoff three years ago – a fight driven by deficit-conscious House Republicans. The sequester, as the cuts are called, would reduce the size of the Army to 420,000 soldiers if it isn’t repealed by Congress before 2017.
Under the Hagel plan, 36,700 additional troops would leave the military next year. That number will be higher under the sequester, although how many more is uncertain.
Either way, the cuts are sure to affect the $16 billion the military pumps into South Carolina’s economy each year through payroll and supplies for its eight military installations, defense contracts and large National Guard and reserve contingents.
“We’re faced with a very unsavory situation,” said Bill Bethea, a Bluffton attorney who is chairman of the S.C. Military Base Task Force, which Haley appointed to protect the state’s installations and attempt to expand their missions. “The sequester is the most colossal Trojan horse in the history of the U.S. government.”
Building on experience
South Carolina is positioning itself to absorb those additional departing troops.
The state’s unemployment rate in February was 5.7 percent. In 2013, the jobless rate among all S.C. veterans was 4.1 percent, down from 6.9 percent in 2012, according to the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce.
That ranks sixth in the nation.
The national unemployment rate among all veterans is about 7 percent, according to the U.S Chamber of Commerce. But the unemployment rate among post-9/11 veterans is 9.9 percent. And the rate for post-9/11 veterans under 25 years old is 20 percent.
Some younger veterans without families want to take some time off after difficult deployments, said Elisa Edwards, the civilian director of the S.C. Guard’s Service Member and Family Care Program, which staffs Operation Palmetto Employment. “They just want to stay with mom and dad for awhile and play video games.”
But most veterans, she said, not only want to find jobs, but build on the experience they gained in the military. “We want to put them on a career path,” she said.
Ernie Lombardi, the Jacksonville, Fla.-based associate for the U.S. Chamber’s Hiring our Heroes program, has organized 67 job fairs in the Southeast in the past 18 months, including one at Fort Jackson in February.
Much of the problem with younger veterans and often older service members, he said, is that they don’t know how to explain their military job skills to civilian human resource directors. “They can’t translate them into language that civilians can understand.”
Also, human resource directors don’t understand military jobs and jargon and how the veterans’ skills can be applied to their businesses. “They just turn the resumes over and set them aside.”
“Veterans need to be able to explain their skill sets, and civilian HR directors need to rethink their language skills, too,” Lombardi said.
‘A different language’
Operation Palmetto Employment does just that.
With the help of a $750,000 U.S. Department of Defense grant, it pairs unemployed post-9/11 veterans with S.C. Guard advisers at S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce offices in each of the state’s seven Congressional districts. The advisers work one-on-one with the service members to translate the skills they learned in the military with businesses that want to hire veterans.
One of those veterans is 1st Lt. Gregory Harris of Florence.
The 24-year-old Army officer returned March 1 from nine months at Forward Operating Base Spin Boldak, located southeast of Kandahar, Afghanistan. There, his Signal Unit Bravo provided and maintained internet service for the entire base.
Harris wants to embark on a career in information technology, but getting used to civilian methods and speech has been challenging.
“It’s been awkward,” said Harris, who holds a political science degree from Coastal Carolina University. “It’s like speaking in a different language.”
For instance, MOS means Military Occupational Specialty. BDU means Battle Dress Uniform. BCT can mean either Brigade Combat Team of Basic Combat Training. DFAC is a dining facility.
Harris said he has forced himself to drop Army acronyms while talking to potential employers.
“I have to get in the habit of saying the full phrase,” he said. “But sometimes we don’t even know what (the acronym) means.”
The Guard program was created by Guard members for Guard members. It offers newly returned troops a variety of support to help them transition into the civilian workforce. That includes resume writing classes, tips on how to dress for success, mock interviews and realistic salary expectations.
Col. Ronald Taylor, who developed the program and now commands the office’s Service Member and Family Care Programs, said it presently is placing about 80 soldiers a month, most of them returning Guard members who will remain part-time soldiers or airmen until called back into active duty again. Those numbers will swell as more active duty troops leave the service and join the program.
“You aren’t going to see people in the service 28 or 35 years anymore,” Taylor said. “That’s going to be a rarity.”
Sgt. William Foster, 29, of Spartanburg, returned from Afghanistan earlier this month. He said he would like to stay in the Army, “but it’s tough now because of the downsizing. The only jobs open are for Special Forces (commandos). And Special Forces isn’t for everyone.”
Skills in demand
Despite the hurdles, many companies favor veterans as employees and make special efforts to hire them. Post-9/11 veterans tend to be on time, drug-free, mission-oriented and accept criticism and instruction well.
“By definition they are the top one-third of the population,” said Col. Brian Hilferty of U.S. Army Central, a former U.S. Military Academy instructor who is leaving the service this year.
He noted that to get into the military, one must have a high school diploma, pass a drug test, pass a physical fitness test, pass mental health screenings and have avoided any serious brushes with the law.
The most popular occupations for those coming out of the military are manufacturing, distribution, security, construction, medical, information technologies and transportation.
Among the largest companies that work with the program to hire S.C. veterans are the Amazon.com distribution center in Lexington County and the Boeing manufacturing plant in North Charleston.
Amazon set a goal to hire 1,200 veterans last year systemwide. It hired 1,900.
“They are skilled at working as a team and accomplishing their missions as a group,” spokeswoman Kelly Cheesenan said from Amazon’s Seattle headquarters. “We have a bias for action, and they are leaders who take action.”
Boeing presently employs 24,000 veterans throughout the company – about 15 percent of its workers.
“Boeing hires veterans because they bring values, skills and perspective uniquely cultivated through their experience in the military,” spokeswoman Candy Eslinger wrote. “They create value in our company by demonstrating leadership, excellence and a collaborative approach.”
For Jamin McCallum, founder of Columbia firearms sales and manufacturing firm Palmetto State Armory, hiring veterans is more than a corporate strategy. A member of the S.C. Guard who was deployed to Iraq in 2006 clearing roadside bombs, McCallum started the company from his garage in 2008 and it now has grown to 250 employees, 100 of them veterans and many of them Guard friends.
“This is a very precise business,” said McCallum, whose firm each year manufactures about a 250,000 parts for AR-5 rifles and M4 carbines for sale to the public. “Firearms are easy to figure out; you just pull the trigger. But you need a level of professionalism for firearms to be safe. I feel better with veterans around me. We were a family in the Guard, so I reached out to the people we knew.”
Benefits for S.C.
Haley said she supports S.C. companies hiring as many veterans as possible because it’s the right thing to do.
“South Carolina is trying to help those who have sacrificed and put their lives on the line for the good people of this country,” she said.
But retaining veterans in the state after they leave the military has benefits other than patriotism.
The estimated 56,000 military retirees in South Carolina received $1.3 billion in fiscal year 2011, according to a study commissioned by the S.C. Department of Commerce.
That money is spent in local grocery stores and gas stations, movie theaters and restaurants. And those retirees pay taxes, support schools and churches and often continue their service to their country by volunteering for worthy causes.
Hilferty, the colonel who is retiring from U.S. Army Central, said he, his wife and three children will stay in Sumter rather than moving back to his home town of Arlington, Mass.
“The cost of living is low,” he said. “There’s no traffic. The climate is great. Great people. There’s lots to do. And my kids like it.”
Retaining veterans also helps Haley and Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt in their efforts to recruit companies, because they help bolster the state’s workforce.
“They are a workforce I don’t want to lose,” said Haley, whose husband, Michael, is an S.C. Guard soldier who recently returned from Afghanistan. “They are a selling point when I recruit companies to this state. And they are also a workforce that deserves to have the attention.”
McGowan “Max” Anderson Jr., 46, served in the Air Force for 24 years. He was deployed seven times to the Middle East and served two tours of duty in Iraq training Iraqi police to handle police dogs and bomb sniffing dogs.
He now is a dog handler for the Richland County Sheriff’s Office, which last year won a national Department of Defense Award for hiring veterans. He said young veterans should see their transition to civilian life as a blessing.
“Have an open mind,” he said. “Be confident and be willing to change and improve yourself for the better. If you don’t do that, you’ll never grow. It’s a great opportunity.”