Hargray program gives veterans a chance to join the civilian workforce

bheffernan@islandpacket.comJuly 9, 2013 

"Heroes at Hargray" interns, from left, Justin Hutcheson, Tom Deal, David Kleiman and Lance Sutton were photographed Tuesday at the Hargray office in Bluffton.

JAY KARR — Staff photo Buy Photo

The last time Lance Sutton worked for the private sector, he was making change and bussing tables at a Wendy's in Clearwater, Fla.

That was before he served his country for five years in the U.S. Marine Corps, repairing fighter jet cables, including a stint aboard the USS Harry S. Truman in the Persian Gulf.

Monday, Sutton's first day back in the civilian workforce, had a decidedly different feel from his time in the Corps.

"They don't talk as fast. ... It's a refreshing change of pace," he said during a new-employee orientation at Hargray's Hilton Head Island offices.

Sutton, 23, is one of four recruits in a new, one-year internship program -- "Heros at Hargray" -- that helps veterans transition into the civilian workforce.

Justin Hutcheson, 24, a former aircraft mechanic in the Corps; Tom Deal, 35, a former air traffic control radar technician in the Corps; and David Kleiman, 35, a former Army National Guard communications support specialist, also were hired for the program.

The four will install and repair cable TV, high-speed internet and telephone equipment.

At the end of the internship, the four should have the skills to be hired by Hargray or a similar company, said Chris McCorkendale, Hargray's vice president of operations and engineering.

Eventually the company hopes to expand the program to the sales, customer service and engineering departments, McCorkendale said.

He said the company has a history of hiring veterans who become long-time employees. McCorkendale, a retired Army officer, is among them.

"What people in the military learn is to be accountable for themselves ... and their actions. They make very, very good leaders once they learn the roles and responsibilities," he said.

But the internship program is about more than finding good workers, he said.

"In a small but meaningful way, it's a chance (for Hargray) to make a difference in an individual's life," he said.

The company launched the program "in hopes that it will be a model" to encourage other area businesses to extend a helping hand to veterans.

Other American businesses are already onboard.

Retail giant Walmart has committed to giving a job to any honorably discharged veteran in his or her first 12 months off active duty.

Private equity firm the Blackstone Group plans to hire 50,000 veterans over the next five years.

And more than 2,000 businesses have partnered with Joining Forces, a national campaign launched by the Obama administration to connect veterans with jobs.

There are some signs such programs are paying off.

The jobless rate for those who served since the Sept., 11, 2001, terrorist attacks dropped to 7.3 percent in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's below the national average of 7.6 percent and down from 12.7 percent among the veteran group in the same period a year earlier.

For veterans such as Sutton, the civilian job came quickly. He earned an honorable discharge as a corporal just two days before the Hargray orientation.

But for others, like Deal, employment has been slower to come.

Deal said he had been applying for jobs for more than a year and a half before being hired by Hargray.

He said he received a great many generic rejection emails -- enough that he can still recite some of the most often used lines.

"But most of the time, I wouldn't get a response at all," he said.

The chance to work for Hargray is more than a "career opportunity," he said.

"It's a huge relief."

Follow reporter Brian Heffernan at twitter.com/IPBG_Brian

Shan Li of the Los Angeles Times contributed to this story.

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