HELPING HANDS Skills are transferable. (Photo courtesy of DOD)

After more than six years in the Army following his West Point graduation, Bill Gaul never dreamed he would have to worry about finding a job. He was trained as an engineer, had project management experience and flew helicopters. But when Gaul decided to leave the military in 1986 it would take almost five months before he found work. He remembers it as a stressful time, laden with anxiety. After several years in the civilian work force, Gaul decided to make his difficulty finding work actually work for him.

Aware that other veterans were also having difficulty finding challenging jobs, Gaul founded The Destiny Group, a San Diego-based firm that uses online technology to match men and women leaving the service with civilian employment. Jobs in approximately 95 careers are listed on the Destiny Group Website, including construction.

GAUL

"We specialize in one type of candidate only," says Gaul. Employers recognize that the men and women are for the most part well-skilled, responsible and have a good work ethic. "They show up on time and are drug free," he adds.

With shortages of skilled construction craftworkers expected to surge over the next 10 years, construction employers naturally are angling to employ some of the men and women exiting the military. The Defense Dept. estimates that 250,000 persons will leave military service each year either through retirement or declining to re-enlist.

Job referral firms aren’t the only ones with their eyes on returning veterans. Hoping to capture a significant slice of this work force, the 15 construction labor unions of the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Dept., along with their eight employer associations and the North American Contractors Association (NACA), founded Helmets to Hardhats. The idea for the program surfaced in 2001 at an industry meeting focusing on ways to help veterans in transition. BCTD Secretary-Treasurer Joseph Maloney attended that meeting to tout the departments’ apprenticeship programs. During the conference Maloney met Matthew P. Caulfield, a retired Marine Corps general and work force consultant and recruiter. Maloney and Caulfield started brainstorming and soon the seeds were planted for Helmets to Hardhats, or H2H.

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"We didn’t want thousands of people showing up at apprenticeship programs so we had to develop a plan," explains Maloney. Military members have the second-highest level of computer literacy skills after college students, so the program was designed around the Internet, Maloney says. H2H allows both prospective workers and employers to register on line. The goal was to "make this a digital handshake," he adds. An online program also would offer flexibility to someone being discharged in San Diego but heading home to Buffalo.

H2H is a nonprofit, Web-based recruitment program administered by the Center for Military Recruitment, Assessment and Veterans Employment. A joint labor-management committee, co-chaired by BCTD President Edward C. Sullivan and NACA Chairman Kenneth E. Hedman, oversees the labor-management board of trustees. Caulfield is the program’s executive director.

Here is how it works: potential workers register on the H2H Website and fill out an extensive questionnaire detailing previous work and military experience, education, personal information, career goals and geographic preferences. Employers, including contractors and craft apprenticeship programs, also register on the Website. A computer program matches job candidates with employers or apprentice coordinators. A representative from the individual union or contractor makes the next contact with the veteran to assess if the match has a future.

There is no fee to register with H2H. Caulfield says the cost of hiring via H2H for the first placement year, 2003, was $1,001, significantly lower than the industry average as reported in The Saratoga Institute’s Human Capital Report for 2000. The H2H cost drops in 2004 to $471, annualized from January to May data, Caulfield adds.

EQUIPPED The construction industry is beginning to see the military as a prime source of new workers needed to fill its depleted ranks. (Photo top courtesy of DOD)

"We see this as a huge opportunity for our union, our contractors," says William Luddy, executive director of the carpenters’ Labor-Management Education & Development Trust.

The building trades and the contractor groups supplied early seed money to jump-start the program. In 2003, H2H received congressional funding and formally launched. For its first year, Congress approved $3.4 million, followed by $5.5 million for fiscal 2004. The 2005 funding request is still pending as part of the Army budget funded through the Defense Authorization legislation. If the time comes that Congress no longer funds the program, other resources will be found, say its leaders. "We will not let it die under any circumstances," asserts Hedman, also manager of labor relations at Bechtel Construction Co.

Given its public funding, H2H is not limited to unions and their contractors. "We started as a labor-management program to kick off but that doesn’t mean that an...