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The Wisconsin National Guard’s Wisconsin Employment Resource Connection (WERC) announced its 500th successful job placement at a March 19 press conference at the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs in Madison, Wis.

“It’s been an amazing journey,” Capt. Joseph Ledger, WERC manager, said. “We called this press conference to announce our 500th hire – in my eyes, I look at it as 500 lives changed.”

Technically 530 lives, as the employment case managers at four locations across the state enjoyed an especially productive two weeks. The average hourly wage for WERC job placements is $17.

Sgt. 1st Class Jim Reynolds, of Waukesha, Wis., became number 500 when he was hired by Milwaukee-based Optimum Vehicle Logistics as a service and sales technician. Reynolds is retiring from the Wisconsin Army National Guard after two deployments and 23 years of military service.

“It was a lot faster than I expected,” Reynolds acknowledged.” I wasn’t sure what I was looking for quite yet. They exceeded my expectations. I was going in there thinking about having someone help me transfer my information over, maybe throw me a couple of job postings. I didn’t realize what all they had to offer and how far they would go to match you with the actual job.”

Reynolds might be a case study in the most effective way to take advantage of WERC. Knowing that he was going to retire from not only the Wisconsin National Guard but his federal technician job, he contacted WERC’s Waukesha office last June. Staff Sgt. Jeff Baldovan helped craft his resume, translating military skills and experiences into civilian skill sets. Reynolds was looking to continue working with military equipment – he will retire from the National Guard as a maintenance inspector – as well as use his college training in project management, and Baldovan sent him a job posting from Optimum Vehicle Logistics that seemed to fit the bill.

“I sent a resume at the end of November, I had my first interview in December and my second interview in the middle of January, and a job offer shortly after,” Reynolds said.

Jessica Williams, a Job Connection Education Program (JCEP) contractor working as a case manager at WERC’s Madison location, said Reynolds’ story is not unusual.

“WERC and JCEP really focus on getting to know our participants,” Williams explained. “It’s not like we’re herding cattle. We really get to know the person – what are their skill sets, what are the deployments they’ve had, the education. We really try to understand what the resume is, but also really meeting with them, find out about their interview skills, and get them in the right direction.”

Gov. Scott Walker encouraged the Wisconsin National Guard to develop an employment assistance program for its service members due to high unemployment in the ranks. In 2012, unemployment in the Wisconsin Army National Guard was estimated at 10.1 percent, while the jobless rate among Wisconsin Air National Guard members was 6.7 percent.

“It’s unconscionable that we would have any man or woman come back home [from a deployment] and not be able to find gainful employment,” Walker said, noting that the Wisconsin Army National Guard unemployment rate in 2012 eclipsed Wisconsin’s high-water unemployment mark of 9.2 percent four years ago.

“Today, we are proud to not only celebrate the WERC program’s 500th hire, but the fact that we’ve pushed that unemployment rate from 10.1 percent to 5.1 percent in both the Wisconsin Army and Air National Guard,” Walker continued. “This state now has an unemployment rate among those who served that is less than not only the national average but the state average [of 6.1 percent]. Of course, I’m a little bit persistent – how do we get to where we have nobody unemployed?”

Ledger said the key is the WERC case managers, who have processed more than 700 resumes and maintain a caseload of 600 people.

“The work doesn’t stop here,” Ledger said. “It’s a continued battle, continued education process of employers and service members. On the employer side it’s educating them on the benefits of hiring service members, but also showing them the transportable skills from military service members into the civilian side. But it’s also educating us and our service members, because we diminish what we get trained on and what we can really bring to the table. The staff does amazing job of working that with the service members.”

“I want to commend the entire WERC program for all of their efforts in finding Wisconsin service members meaningful employment,” Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar, Wisconsin’s adjutant general, said. “Their ongoing efforts are a force multiplier that allow our service members to remain ready.”

The WERC program has found success in placing current service members and their families from all services into jobs due to strong partnerships with other state agencies like the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Workforce Development and the business community.

John Scocos, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, described the collaboration between his department, the Wisconsin National Guard, the Department of Workforce Development and the governor’s office as “one team, one fight.”

“The tribute today is to the Wisconsin National Guard for the work they’ve done,” Scocos said.

Reggie Newson, secretary of the Department of Workforce Development, agreed.

“Gov. Walker continues to make sure that Secretary Scocos and I and Gen. Dunbar are focused like a laser to make sure we can provide the tools and resources to you to be able to get trained, upgrade skill sets and to connect you to employment opportunities in the marketplace,” Newson said. “We look forward to continuing working with you all as we continue to move the state forward in terms of economic development.”

Dinetha Thompson, program manager at JCEP, praised the WERC program for its strong partnerships and innovative outreach methods such as the Business Summit in March 2012 at Lambeau Field in Green bay, Wis., to educate employers on the benefits of hiring veterans.

“The importance of today is the military leadership and the state realizing that there’s still a long way to go – we still have a lot of unemployed Soldiers,” Thompson said. “This program in Wisconsin has been so successful because of the leadership buy-in and the support we get from everybody. It’s that support that really enables them to make a difference in a life.”

For Dunbar, employment is a readiness issue.

“When our Soldiers, Airmen and their families are unemployed or underemployed, it affects their ability to focus on their mission,” Dunbar said. “We ask a lot of our service members, and a key component to the success of our operational Guard will always be our community and employer support.”

“I cannot thank the business community enough for their support of our service members,” he added. “Having supportive employers who understand the value that a military service member brings to their organization is what makes the Wisconsin National Guard so successful.”

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