The construction sites of Massachusetts are a world away from the dangerous streets of Iraq, but an increasing number of military veterans are finding a home in the Building Trades craft unions.
With the help of Helmets to Hardhats (H2H), a partnership of 15 Building Trades unions, signatory Construction Industry Employer Associations and the U.S. Military, veterans are transitioning back to civilian life with career training and employment opportunities within the building and construction industry.
Helmets to Hardhats is designed to ease the difficult passage into civilian life for military families, providing the best career opportunities, pay and benefits to those who have earned the nation's support through their years of service.
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 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 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," said Mary Vogel, executive director of The Construction Institute. The institute's member organizations represent 75,000 union construction workers and over 3,500 contractors in Massachusetts.
Vogel said that building and construction trade unions and contractors in Massachusetts are participating in the H2H program, with well over 200 veterans placed in apprenticeship programs.
H2H candidates can access information about careers and apprenticeships via the Internet from anywhere in the world. To apply for work or membership, they complete a comprehensive profile that helps apprentice programs and hiring managers determine what transferable skills the veterans 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 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, an apprentice becomes a journeyman — a craftsperson recognized for having knowledge and ability in the selected trade. In some cases a participant's military experience can give him or her credit towards journeyman status and allow the participant to enter an apprenticeship program at an advanced level or even be classified as a journeyman immediately. Construction industry employers may also 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 for the Elevator Constructors. The Elevator Constructors have heartedly 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," said Devlin.
Dan Sullivan and Stephen McKunes are two newly indentured Helmets to Hardhats apprentices with Sheet Metal Workers Local 17 in Dorchester. Sullivan learned about H2H through a commercial that aired during a Bruins game. He immediately logged onto the H2H website 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. His 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 Helmets to Hardhats Humvee at an air show, "but didn't think construction would be for 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, 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.
Richie Eckler, the area H2H coordinator, feels that America should show veterans its appreciation by giving them an opportunity to make a good living.
"Helmets to Hardhats is all about providing quality jobs for quality people," said Richie Eckler. "After defending our country, it is only right that we give them a chance to build our country."
Tom Aiello, vice president, of Monster Military, believes veterans are desirable job candidates. "Military veterans represent a resource for highly skilled talent. They are highly trainable which makes them ideal for union apprenticeships," he said. "Also, veterans' strong leadership skills can fill critical shortages for foremen and site managers in the construction industry," he added.
Darrell Roberts, executive director for Helmets to Hardhats, echoed this sentiment. "We want to be the first resource that Apprenticeship Program instructors and construction employers go to, and we want to deliver them the highest quality veteran candidates," he explained.
In summing up the program, the Construction Institute's Vogel said, "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.
"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 website at www.helmetstohardhats.org," said Vogel.