When Sgt. Johnathan LeBlanc of South Congaree, an S.C. Army National Guard helicopter repairman, returned from a 12-month deployment to Iraq last year, he thought he could find similar civilian work here. He thought wrong.
A year later, after he exhausted his unemployment benefits, he realized that finding any anyjob that didn’t require him to move from the state was going to be a challenge.
But LeBlanc was able to find work last week doing home repair for a company that appreciates his six years of service in the Army with the help of an innovative new S.C. Guard employment program that has dropped the jobless rate for its soldiers and airmen to 4.7 percent from 16 percent in just two years. Statewide, the unemployment rate among all residents is 8 percent, down from 10.5 percent two years ago.
“I was being a little too stubborn and wanted to find exactly what I wanted in a job, and of course that didn’t exist,” said the 23-year-old LeBlanc, a Windsor native who joined the Guard at age 17 and plans to stay in the service. “I didn’t really know how to communicate with civilians and didn’t know about finding a civilian job. They put everything in perspective.”
“They” are case workers in the Guard’s Employment Services program. Since the program’s inception two years ago, the unemployment rate among the state’s 9,000 or so part-time soldiers and airmen had been as low as 3.7 percent, before the recent return of two large guard units from Afghanistan and Kosovo.
“That’s about full employment when you consider people moving around,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Livingston Jr., the state’s adjutant general and Guard commander.
The employment program was developed as an outgrowth of efforts to reduce suicides, divorce rates, drug and alcohol addictions and other problems among Guard members, said Col. Ronald Taylor, director of the S.C. Guard’s Service Member and Family Care programs. Often the common denominator in those concerns was unemployment.
So Livingston, Taylor and their team, which included input from civilian employers, built a program around one of the basic tenets of business — building relationships.
They appointed seven case workers for the new program — that’s one for each Congressional district because the Guard has service members and armories statewide. The case workers, located within regional offices of the S.C. Department Employment and Workforce, began reaching out to potential new employers and Taylor and Livingston began making other businesspeople aware of the program through Rotary Clubs and other speaking opportunities.
At the same time, the Guard intensified workshops to train returning service members in how to find a civilian job – be it interviewing, dressing or preparing a resume.
“But the case worker piece is the key,” Taylor said.
Prior to the program, employers who wanted to hire might not have been aware of qualified Guard employees, and vice versa.
“It was just a matter of matching them up,” Livingston said.
One of those employers was Donnie Moore, owner of Moore Quality Builders in Lexington. He has volunteered to build and remodel (for free) the USOs at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport and the Guard’s McCrady Training Center at Fort Jackson.
“What these guys do for me everyday (through their military service) allows me to do what I do every day,” he said. “So to give up a little money for that is an easy decision.”
Moore is also Sgt. LeBlanc’s new boss. He said he liked giving LeBlanc an opportunity because of the discipline instilled in service members.
“When these guys come back, they need an opportunity and are ready to go to work,” he said. “They’re disciplined. They are on time. They’ve followed rules their whole professional lives. They are prepared. And they are good communicators.”
Taylor said the Guard is continuing to try to identify more employers as the war in Afghanistan is winding down and the 600 or so Guard members still there begin to cycle home. They also would like to open the program to other veterans who have recently left active duty.
“It’s uniform people helping uniform people,” Livingston said. “That’s what makes this program different.”