Next month, 1st Sgt. Santiago Lebron will be leaving the S.C. Army National Guard after 22 years.
He is one of an increasing number of soldiers forced to leave the service because of troop reductions after 14 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. On Tuesday, he was at Fort Jackson, winding through booth after booth of employers looking for potential employees at the annual Hiring Our Heroes job fair.
Before he joined the Guard full time, he worked for Eastman Chemical in Gaston.
“But they aren’t there anymore, so I have to find something else,” said Lebron, of Columbia. “My wife says I could talk to a brick wall, so I don’t think I’ll have any problem finding something,” he added, laughing.
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Monday’s job fair might prove him right.
A record turnout of nearly 100 employers set up shop at Fort Jackson’s Solomon Center for the annual fair. However, the event was expected to attract only about 500 veterans, down from nearly double that number in previous years.
Organizers said the improving economy and more companies adopting outreach programs for hiring vets are making it easier for transitioning service member to find jobs.
“It’s odd to see more employers than veterans,” said Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Carl Blackstone, as he surveyed the gymnasium at the start of the event.
The job fair is sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Columbia Chamber solicits employers for the fair. Among the employers were police and sheriff’s departments, construction companies, trucking firms, security companies and hoteliers, among many others.
One of those employers was Len Wade, himself a Navy veteran from Jacksonville, Fla. He was soliciting drivers for the Cypress and Sunbelt truck lines. He said he has noticed the attendance decreasing at veteran job fairs across his Southeastern region.
“I think the economy is improving,” he said. “And companies more and more are recognizing the skills of our veterans and are hiring them. So (the veterans) don’t have to come to these events.”
Wade noted that his firms preferred to hire vets because they are drug free, dependable, mission oriented and don’t watch the clock.
“If they are supposed to show up at eight they come in early,” he said. “In the military if you show up on time you’re late.”