Combat Veterans Constructing a New Career in Mass.

Mon July 28, 2008 - Northeast Edition
James A. Merolla



The construction sites of Massachusetts are a world away from the dangerous streets of Iraq.

But an increasing number of veterans are finding a home — many while constructing homes — in the Building Trades craft unions.

With the help of Helmets to Hardhats (H2H) — a partnership between the 15 unions of the Building Trades, signatory Construction Industry Employer Associations and the U.S. Military — veterans are transitioning back to civilian life with quality career training and employment opportunities within the building and construction industry.

H2H is designed to ease the difficult passage into civilian life for military families — National Guard, Reserve and other active-duty members — to help provide the best career opportunities, pay and benefits to those who have earned the nation’s support through their years of service.

A Great Fit for Vets, Unions

Launched in 2003, H2H is proving to be a great fit, for both returning service men and women and the unionized construction trades. Veterans receive the best training in the trade of their choice and an opportunity for a well-paying union career while the construction industry receives hard-working apprentices, ready for the challenges of the building trades.

In five years, H2H has established a solid national program with candidates from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and several U.S. territories.

Twenty-five states have issued either legislative resolutions or governor proclamations in support of H2H and its mission to help veterans start new careers, including the other five New England states — Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. Three more states are ready to sign up. Arizona announced its support for H2H this past November and Maryland and Texas are likely to join in supporting H2H veterans in the coming months.

According to Ted Wadsworth, H2H national marketing coordinator, there currently are nearly 20,000 veterans registered as career candidates with H2H and approximately 2,000 more veterans register each month.

With the implementation of dozens of Statewide Direct Entry programs, H2H candidates are able to get into quality construction careers soon after applying for them. Prior experience with a particular craft or trade is not necessary.

Once a state proclamation has been signed, it allows all joint apprenticeship training councils and local unions in the state to accept current and former military personnel into their training programs on a prioritized basis, as well as providing credit for military training and experience.

According to Wadsworth, “Helmets to Hardhats is all about standing up for what’s right … and it’s the story of how an entire industry has come together not just to reward those who have bravely served this nation with dedication, honor and courage, but to enlist those same veterans to put their military training, values and discipline to work in carrying out a new mission for America.”

Veterans and unions share a common brotherhood and common history in building and defending our country, added Wadsworth.

“The building and construction trades see this as a continuation of this rich history. The program is also a way for disabled veterans to find great opportunities and fill back office positions such as estimators, engineers, dispatchers, etc.”

477,000 Veterans in Mass.

In Massachusetts, there are approximately 25,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and nearly 477,000 veterans overall.

“These numbers demonstrate the need for a comprehensive, coordinated effort to reach out to these men and women to make sure they know about quality career opportunities,” according to Mary Vogel, executive director of The Construction Institute. The Institute’s member organizations represent 75,000 union construction workers and more than 3,500 contractors in Massachusetts.

“We are extremely proud of the fact that our building and construction trade unions and contractors in Massachusetts are participating in the H2H program. Well over 200 military veterans have been placed in our apprenticeship programs through H2H, and they are on their way to promising careers in the building and construction industry,” said Vogel.

H2H candidates can access information about careers and apprenticeships via the Internet from anywhere in the world. To apply for work or membership, candidates complete a comprehensive profile that helps apprentice programs and hiring managers determine what transferable skills they acquired during their military service.

Once a candidate finds and submits interest in a career opportunity, they are contacted by an H2H representative to ensure all application requirements are met.

Most H2H candidates enter one of the building trades’ apprenticeship programs where they learn a trade through on-the-job training supplemented by classroom instruction. There is no charge for the training and they are paid for the time they are working.

The pay H2H participants receive from an employer can be supplemented by education benefits under the G.I. Bill, adding hundreds more dollars each month to their take home pay. Upon graduation, they will become a journeyman — a craftsperson recognized for his or her knowledge and ability in the selected trade.

In some cases a participant’s military experience can give him or her credit toward journeyman status and allow the participant to enter an apprenticeship program at an advanced level or be classified as a journeyman immediately. Construction industry employers also may recruit for other types of careers in their construction company such as administrative, engineering and management positions.

“What’s not to like about these men and women? They are respectful; they show up on time ready to work. They show up for class on time. They make great candidates for our apprenticeship program,” said Joe Devlin, area apprentice coordinator of the Elevator Constructors, a company that has wholeheartedly embraced the program.

“We have placed 23 H2H candidates in our Local 4 and Local 41 training programs in Massachusetts and their ’can do’ attitude helps them to assimilate exceptionally well into the construction trades,” according to Devlin.

Local Vets Talk Up the Trade

Dan Sullivan and Stephen McKunes are two newly indentured H2H apprentices with Sheet Metal Workers Local 17 in Dorchester, Mass.

Sullivan learned about H2H through a commercial that aired during a Boston Bruins hockey game. He immediately logged onto the H2H Web site and contacted Richie Eckler, the area H2H coordinator, for more information.

“Helmets to Hardhats was an awesome tool for helping me transition back into civilian life,” said Sullivan. Sullivan’s enrollment in the Sheet Metal Worker’s apprentice program could not have come at a better time. His union benefits kicked in just before he got married in September.

“My wife became ill two days after our wedding and incurred thousands of dollars in medical bills, which were covered by my union health insurance,” he said.

McKunes is a Staff Sergeant in the Air Force Reserves with two years left in the service. He visited the H2H Humvee at an air show, but said he “didn’t think construction would be me.”

A cousin in the union encouraged him to reconsider and put him in touch with Eckler.

“It was the best move I ever made,’ McKunes said. “My family is very happy with my career choice as well. I have excellent wages and benefits and more time on the weekends to spend with my daughter.”

Ryan Patrick Silk, an H2H participant from Springfield, Mass., is equally pleased with his new career in the building trades. Now a third year apprentice with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 7, Silk enrolled in the program in 2005 just months after he completed five years of service with the Marines, including a tour in Iraq.

“I would encourage other returning vets to explore a career in the building trades — it’s just a great way to go,” Silk said.

“Helmets to Hardhats is all about providing quality jobs for quality people,” said Eckler. “After defending our country, it is only right that we give them a chance to build our country.”

Vets Are a Talented Resource

“Military veterans represent a resource for highly skilled talent. They are highly trainable, which makes them ideal for union apprenticeships,” added Tom Aiello, vice president of Monster Military. “Also, veterans’ strong leadership skills can fill critical shortages for foremen and site managers in the construction industry.”

The idea is building momentum, company to company, in half the states in the country. With Massachusetts on board, the states that participate include California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and even the Zuni Tribe.

“We want to be the first resource veterans, apprenticeship program instructors, and construction employers go to, and we want to deliver them the highest quality veteran candidates,” added Darrell Roberts, executive director of H2H.

“The building trades and our signatory contractors have a long history of welcoming military veterans into the industry and the H2H program has made it much easier to ensure their successful return to civilian life,” said Vogel. “We would encourage family and friends of returning servicemen and women to let them know about the Helmets to Hardhats program and visit the H2H Web site at www.helmetstohardhats.org.” CEG