Job-hunting frontlines

Veterans representatives Donna Greene (left) and Kevin Glears confer with program assistant Lindsey Holt at the local S.C. Works office.

Brad Nettles

Donna Greene did not have to imagine what it was like to be out of work, to find door after door to employment closed and bolted.

After 29 years of service in the Air Force, she was yet another veteran suspended in the economic downturn.

"It was very difficult," said Greene, now a veterans' representative with S.C. Works. "I've been here a year and a half and I only had three interviews the first year. I received several emails thanking me for my interest, but more often than not, I didn't receive any response at all."

When she did finally land a job, it was with the conviction that she would do all she could to ease the transition for other vets.

Greene retired from the Air Force Reserve in December 2007 with the service's highest noncommissioned rank, chief master sergeant. She had been assigned to the 349th Air Mobility Wing at Travis Air Force Base in California.

She was aware of the nation's One Stop Centers for employment assistance because she had worked for the California Employment Development Department prior to her family relocating to Charleston in 2010.

"In August of that year, I sought out the Trident One Stop on Rivers Avenue and presented myself to Bill McCall, a veteran representative in the center who has since retired," she said. "About a year later, frustrated, I returned to the center and was introduced to Kevin Glears. Kevin was very instrumental in keeping me focused and encouraged while experiencing Charleston's tough job market."

Today, they are colleagues.

Greene's story is indicative of the tough job market for the men and women who took up arms for the U.S.

On Wednesday, more than 1,300 veterans turned out for a Veterans Job Fair in North Charleston, where nearly 100 employers accepted resumes and talked about their companies.

The unemployment rate for all veterans is about 13.5 percent while the jobless rate for those returning from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan stands between 20 percent and 30 percent.

Twofold duties

Last November, Greene signed on with the recently rechristened S.C. Works, the new name for the state's local workforce centers.

A partnership of the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce, local workforce investment boards and agencies such as the Department of Social Services and S.C. Vocational Rehabilitation Department, S.C. Works is the state's most comprehensive labor exchange system.

With resources available to all seeking employment, S.C. Works also provides assistance to businesses in search of job candidates.

"We try to partner with all agencies that provide advocacy for veterans. ... As part of our outreach, we also go out into the community to actively seek out veterans in places such as Goodwill Industries, Trident Technical College and Crisis Ministries," she said. "In our Transition Assistance Program, we go to local military bases to speak to those re-entering civilian life. We welcome new opportunities to assist Lowcountry veterans wherever they are."

Greene's work is twofold, serving in the Disabled Veteran Outreach Program of S.C. Works as well as in its employment services wing, helping the general public with such tasks as job searches and resume writing. But she said supporting veterans from all eras, not just those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, is her goal.

Public awareness

Many clients do not come to S.C. Works until their situations have reached crisis level, said Glears. And Greene noted that the public is not as aware as it might be of the difficulties veterans face, not least contending with the negative attitudes of some prospective employers.

"Some employers think that military veterans are too regimented and not independent thinkers, that a vast majority suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder, that a person's military rank equates to ability or that many former military do not know how to translate their abilities into civilian language," she said. "All these are misconceptions."

While it may be true that military personnel are taught to follow set regulations and procedures, Greene said, the capacity for flexibility, for quick decisions under pressure, is likewise part of their arsenal. Also, most in the military coming off active duty or Reserve/Guard status have some college education.

"And if not, their time in the military definitely provided them with supervisory/managerial experience," Greene said.

She said a discharged noncommissioned officer, for example, "may leave the military having supervised, had full responsibility for millions of dollars of weapons systems and managed daily activities of offices and work centers without having a formal degree."

Greene, the mother of four, said it is important that people not assume that declines in the county and state unemployment rates mean the pain is ebbing.

"We can look around the cities of Charleston and North Charleston and still see the toll unemployment has taken on our communities," she said. "I feel for those who do not have an education or lack practical experience. One of the main problems we have is not enough skilled individuals to take on the positions that are opening in the job market, which is where training programs come in."

It means everything to Greene to make a difference.

"I see people coming into the center from all walks of life. Some who previously were employed in 'good' paying jobs now find themselves on unemployment, struggling to maintain a lifestyle, others who have never been able to secure positions that pay well enough to pull themselves out of 'working poor' status and still others who are working two and three minimum wage jobs but are looking forward to having just 'one.'

"Then there are those who have nothing. It sometimes wears on my emotions, but being in a place where I can effect some semblance of hope by making a referral to a possible job encourages me."

Reach Bill Thompson at 937-5707.