COLUMBIA, S.C. — 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 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, S.C.
“Now, my only complaint is the high price of gas for driving to work,” Raines says with a laugh.
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.”
Ben Skelton, 29, is a staff sergeant with the Air National Guard, and has worked eight years with the Guard as a chaplain’s assistant.
After earning a college degree in religious studies, he said he was happy to find a job as a chaplain at a private military prep school. He was cut when the school lost students following the 2008 economic slump, so turned to a series of odd jobs, and even selling insurance to supplement his Guard pay, he said.
In the past several months, Edwards helped Skelton find a position with Survivor Outreach Services, a military contractor that hires counselors to help military family members after losing a loved one in the military.
“It’s a real good fit for me,” said Skelton, who said his experience helps survivors understand life insurance policies and other paperwork that floods them during their time of grieving. “It’s really good to find a job where I can help people and make sure they are being taken care of.”
Chad Dowdy, a manager in the southeast for the financial services and insurance firm Northwestern Mutual, said he has been eager to work with the Guard to help find employment for Guardsmen and military veterans.
“We find that people with military backgrounds have a lot of characteristics that are very congruent with what we are looking for in our financial planners,” Dowdy said.
He said he is in negotiations with 44-year-old Scott Johnson of Columbia, who has retired after 24 years with the Army and is interested in training to become a financial planner.
“I was a logistics officer, and I’ve had some background as a human resources officer as well,” said Johnson, who is married with four children. “I need to keep working and I think this will be a good fit.”
Lt. Col. Mike Washington, the program’s deputy director, said the unit is working with Guard members wrapping up a deployment in Kuwait. He said “skill evaluations” have been conducted to see which workers might fit with certain employers.
The unit is on schedule to come home by the end of the year, and Washington said he thinks they will have some job interviews waiting.
“We’ve identified about 300 out of the 1,000 service members who need help finding work when they get home,” Washington said. “We’ll have some work to do.”
Susanne M. Schafer can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/susannemarieap