New program helps Va. Guard Soldiers, Airmen gain civilian employment

Staff Sgt. Gerrard Simpkins, a Virginia National Guard employment support specialist, discusses job opportunities with a Virginia Guard Soldier Aug. 8, 2013, in Virginia Beach. Simpkins is one of nine Soldiers currently on temporary duty throughout the state to assist Soldiers and Airmen looking for employment as part of a new Virginia Guard employment assistance program. (Photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Staff Sgt. Gerrard Simpkins, a Virginia National Guard employment support specialist, discusses job opportunities with a Virginia Guard Soldier Aug. 8, 2013, in Virginia Beach. Simpkins is one of nine Soldiers currently on temporary duty throughout the state to assist Soldiers and Airmen looking for employment as part of a new Virginia Guard employment assistance program. (Photo by Master Sgt. A.J. Coyne, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

SANDSTON, Va. — More than 100 Virginia National Guard Soldiers and Airmen have obtained jobs since mid-July thanks to a new Virginia Guard employment assistance program.

“Our goal is to educate Soldiers and let them know there are resources available to them,” said Staff Sgt. Gerrard Simpkins, an employment support specialist based in Virginia Beach. “We’re putting them in touch with the resources they need and we want them to use those resources to help get employed.”

Simpkins is one of nine Soldiers currently on temporary duty throughout the state to assist Soldiers and Airmen looking for employment. The Soldiers, ranging in rank from sergeant to staff sergeant, work to assist those who are genuinely interested in obtaining meaningful employment, explained 1st Lt. Bryan Hicks, Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Coordinator for the Virginia National Guard.

“We reach out to employers on a daily basis,” Hicks said. “The Employment Support Specialists work one-on-one with the servicemembers seeking employment.”

The Virginia National Guard conducted an Employment Status Survey in April 2013 and, based on the results, the Virginia Guard had a higher unemployment rate than that of the national and state averages. Approximately 1,200 service members, 13.5% of the Virginia Guard, were unemployed. In addition, 24.7%, or approximately 2,100 Soldiers and Airmen, were either unemployed or employed but seeking other employment.

“Based on results from the previous employment survey completed in April 2012, these percentages were greatly reduced over the past year, but are still high,” said Hicks.

Names were taken from the employment survey, along with names passed along by readiness NCOs of Soldiers and Airmen who were seeking employment. The state was then divided into seven regions with two sergeants first class assigned to serve as NCOICs for the program.

The seven regions vary on the number of service members seeking assistance. Some employment support specialists initially had 130-140 service members seeking assistance, while other employment specialists started with 75 or so.

Simpkins estimated he has already contacted close to 200 Soldiers who are seeking employment assistance.

The employment support specialists reach out to employers and help match them up with service members who are seeking employment. They also help them get connected to the Virginia National Guard Employers network on Linked In, provide information on IVET Solutions, Military to Manufacturing (M2M), Hero2Hired, “Dream It. Do It. Virginia,” and the Virginia Guard apprenticeship program.

Hero 2 Hired (H2H) is a military career search website that contains job postings, career assessment tools, social networking, and live and virtual hiring events.

The employment support specialists also work directly with the family assistance coordinators and the local Virginia Employment Commission offices.

“A lot of people don’t know all the resources that are here for them,” Simpkins said. “If they don’t use them, they will go away.”

For instance, grants are available for Guardsmen and veterans that pay to train them for manufacturing jobs. In addition, the Valley OJT program is a grant-funded program that pays half the salary of an individual who is hired. It also pays for classes or certifications that the employer requires, as well as tools, uniforms and supplies.

One of the programs available to job seekers is IVET iTAP 1 Day Career Prep Course. The one-day course helps servicemembers figure out what they want to do, what they should do, what they can do and what they are willing to do. The course focuses on “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” an includes an in-depth introduction and discussion of the Virginia National Guard Employers Network on LinkedIn, Hero to Hired (H2H), Military to Manufacturing (M2M), and “Dream it. Do it. Virginia.” It also includes scheduling tools to help Soldiers and Airmen manage their time while unemployed and seeking employment, assists with resume building and helps participants with their interview skills.

“We’ve placed people in a lot of professional positions and some entry-level positions,” Simpkins said. “We really try to match up Soldiers with their area of expertise.”
One reason for the success of the program is that companies are seeking the skills that Virginia Guard members possess, according to Hicks.

“They’re drug free, they show up on time, they take direction, they have a ‘take- charge attitude,’ and they’re used to receiving a mission and carrying out that mission,” Hicks said. “Employers are very appreciative of military service and they’re very interested in bringing that to their company.”

But the program wouldn’t have gotten this far so quickly if it wasn’t for the hard work of the employment support specialists.

“They’re great advocates for employment for all those who are unemployed,” Hicks said. “They’re all very motivated to assist those who are unemployed.

Serving as an ESS is a chance for Soldiers and Airmen like Simpkins to have an impact and assist their fellow Guard members.

“Once I heard about the position I thought it was something where I could really make an impact, help my fellow Soldiers and see immediate results,” he explained. “I had a Soldier call me who has two kids and one on the way and he had just been laid off. To help him out, and get him placed into a job is a good feeling.”

The Employment Support Specialist program is only scheduled to run to Sept. 30, but the goal is to reduce the Virginia National Guard’s unemployment rate significantly, from double digits to low single digits, according to Hicks.

“We want 200 hired by Sept. 30. That’s our goal,” Hicks said. “We want it to snowball so as we move into the end of August, beginning of September. We’re looking for it to really pick up.”