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Greenville Business Magazine

Military Veterans: An Underused Part of South Carolina's economy

Nov 24, 2020 01:40PM ● By David Dykes
By L. C. Leach III

Veterans often might be thought of as only those who have served their country in a branch of the U.S. military.

But during the inaugural SC Leadership Exchange webinar in November, a retired military officer and a military base taskforce chairman both pointed out that South Carolina’s 400,000-plus veterans not only are part of a $25.3 billion economic impact in the state, they are underutilized as a resource for potential employers.

And in the next several years, veterans across South Carolina are going to be a focus of keeping South Carolina’s economy on solid footing by keeping them firmly in the state.

"Our veteran workforce below-65 population continues to go down at 1.5 percent a year," said Dan Beatty, chairman of the South Carolina military base taskforce, and chief compliance officer for the South Carolina Education Lottery. "We’re losing that retiree veteran workforce because they’re choosing to go somewhere else."

With 58,000 military retirees, South Carolina ranks as the third best state for military retirees – a huge ready-made employment base.

But getting them connected to the state’s workforce is an ongoing concern.

"We have not done a very good job at the state level in pulling together our veterans in the transition assistance program," said Major General (Ret.) William F. Grimsley, confirmed by unanimous vote of the state Senate in March 2020 as the first Secretary of the new South Carolina Department of Veterans’ Affairs. "We hear a lot from our business leaders that ‘we want to hire veterans, but don’t know where to find them.’ And I think that’s our challenge."

To meet the challenge, Grimsley and Beatty highlighted two major initiatives:

Operation Palmetto Employment. Launched in 2014 by former Gov. Nikki Haley, Operation Palmetto Employment (OPE) is a statewide military program designed to help military service members, their family members, and veterans find meaningful civilian careers.

In 2015, more than 23,000 veterans received services, more than 8,000 entered employment, and onsite employer visits regarding veterans increased by 76 percent from the previous year.

The leadership team comprises many state offices and agencies, including the Office of the Governor, National Guard; Department of Employment and Workforce, Division of Veterans Affairs, the South Carolina Technical College System, and both state and local chambers of commerce.

"We’re pulling together the leaders of the OPE with the manufacturing alliance, and several local chambers and the (S.C.) Department of Employment (and) Workforce to build a broader aperture," Grimsley said.

Elimination of income tax of retired military veterans. 
Beatty and Grimsley are at the front of trying to get a bill passed in the General Assembly that would exempt all retired military veterans from paying income taxes.

The measure has been passed in 30 other states, including Tennessee and Florida.

The bill was referred to the state Senate’s Finance Committee, and will come before lawmakers again in 2021.

"That is a huge attraction piece (for veterans), and we’re going to refile it again next year," Grimsley said. "We need to work hard on getting it passed."

Other possible solutions include focusing on cyber-related industries for veterans to apply their skills; improving housing and education around military installations; growing entrepreneurship centers; and growing South Carolina’s number of Department of Defense contracts that benefit the state’s eight military bases.

"We have 68,000 DoD personnel who work in S.C., $6.3 billion of direct DoD funds that come in, and only $3.7 billion that goes to DoD contracts," Beatty said. "Which sounds like a lot; however, that puts us at number 24 and number 25 in the nation. So we’re halfway down of the potential in DoD contracts, academia, and public-private partnerships…that the installations can use for their benefit."

And one other factor is the S.C. Chapter of the national Farmer Veteran Coalition.

Begun only as recently as August 2020, the chapter serves to cultivate a new generation of veteran farmers and food leaders, while also helping state veterans adjust to civilian life and service.

And so far, based on reports from the S.C. Department of Agriculture, more than 4,700 of South Carolina’s 25,000 farms have a veteran as a principal producer.

"We have veterans farming 800,000 acres in South Carolina," said chapter president Matthew Rutter, a veteran who runs the Project Victory Gardens Farm with his wife Kara in Aiken, S.C. "And because the average age of farmers is 58, I think our new state coalition will serve as an incentive to help our veterans find jobs in this area and keep them in the state."

Grimsley added that keeping veterans as a vital part of the South Carolina economy will take a united front across the business community because "state government can’t solve all of this – these solutions are really local."

"So I would ask (our businesses and chambers and local leaders) to consider helping me in figuring out some of these local solutions in what are statewide challenges, but also huge opportunities," he said. "The potential is limitless."