By ELIZABETH SIAS
For the 200,000 men and women who leave the military every year, it’s not always easy to find a civilian career. But several groups that work to place them in union jobs want veterans to know there could be a future for them in skilled trades.
The biggest of the efforts is nonprofit Helmets to Hardhats (H2H), which has helped place more than 46,000 military personnel nationwide into construction careers since 2003.
H2H partners with 15 construction trade unions to allow veterans to explore career options in the trades and help get them started with direct entry into union apprenticeships or management positions with signatory contractors. In all, the group has worked with about 1,600 training centers and 82,000 contractors in over 65 different crafts.
“A service member sacrifices their life — the ultimate sacrifice — while serving our country, so when they exit the service, it’s almost shameful that they don’t have the proper means and support with an employment opportunity,” said H2H spokesperson Kaitlyn Seger.
Since the launch of a new veteran job board earlier this year, the H2H has seen a 33 percent increase in career seekers. After a veteran reaches out to H2H or signs up on the website, job placement isn’t guaranteed, but Seger said she’s seen everyone get placed in her five years at the organization. If not for H2H, Seger said some of the veterans the program has helped have said they would have ended their lives.
“The program gives them a second chance and a sustainable, great-paying career that allows them to support their family,” Seger said.
Then there’s Veterans Electrical Entry Program (VEEP), sponsored by IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) and its employer group NECA (National Electrical Contractors Association). VEEP is a pre-apprenticeship program that places veterans in electrical apprenticeships across the country.
VEEP began in 2019 and by the end of this year it will have graduated more than 400 veterans.
One of them is Adam Loehmer, who applied for an IBEW apprenticeship after serving for nine years in the Navy but didn’t rank high enough to get in right away. Then someone referred him to VEEP. After graduating from its program, he jumped into the second year of apprenticeship with IBEW Local 46 in Seattle.
“It was such a big hit, going from the military and getting paid consistently to not knowing,” Loehmer said. “Now I’ll have a good job and there’s a lot of avenues I could take once I journey out.”
Cody Ramos, another VEEP graduate and Local 46 apprentice, served six years in the Marine Corps. He says he has a lot of military friends who don’t know what to do when they get out, so they end up re-enlisting. He wants them to know there are options.
“When you go from high school into the Marine Corps and then back out here, you’re kind of caught with your pants down,” Ramos said. “This is the perfect program. … You’ll be able to support your family.”
In Central Oregon, IBEW Local 280 plans to launch a partnership with VEEP this month. Mike Ellison, training director at Local 280’s Central Electrical Training Center, says the goal is to accept two graduates each year.
Portland-based IBEW Local 48 is also looking to get a program started.
A smaller group based in Alaska, VIPER Transitions, connects veterans to other skilled trades, like iron work and aviation maintenance. VIPER stands for Veteran Internships Providing Employment Readiness. Its mission is to end veteran suicide by eliminating its causes, including unemployment, substance abuse, and homelessness.
“Part of the reason we have such a suicide epidemic (among veterans) is because you go from having a task and purpose,” said VIPER cofounder Kyle Kaiser, an Army veteran and union organizer with IBEW Local 1547 in Anchorage, Alaska. “When you get out, you’re just kind of floundering, and when you’re not working, it’s easier for the demons to come out.”
Kaiser said VIPER partners with labor unions and private employers to connect veterans to careers, and also helps them get housing and mental health counseling. He says VIPER has helped about 150 veterans since its launch in 2019.
“Labor needs this,” said Kaiser, the VIPER cofounder. “We need manpower. We need people that will show up and work hard… A lot of vets leave the military and are told they need to go back to school, and that’s not necessarily true. These pathways that lead to real career paths are very appealing.”