Since 2003, when the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Dept. (BCTD) and nine construction employer groups founded Helmets to Hardhats, or H2H, to transition military personnel into industry craft jobs, the continuing Iraq war has added a new crop of veterans and, as Memorial Day approaches, a poignant dimension to the union recruiting and training program.

The war’s demands spawned a larger military force trained in higher-tech tools and approaches. But the Pentagon had to reach deeper into National Guard and reserve support units, which drew longer, tougher stretches of duty. For those ready and able to transition back to civilian life or seek a post-military career change, H2H has offered a new opportunity.

The U.S. military discharges between 270,000 and 325,000 personnel every year, says Darrel Roberts, H2H executive director and a trained sheet-metal worker. The discharge just has to be honorable to qualify for H2H. “Our challenge is finding those who want a career in construction,” he says. “Not a lot of people look at the industry as a career choice until they realize what they can make and the opportunities available.”

For building trades, the military offers an untapped resource as unions anticipate severe manpower shortages in the next 10 to 15 years, when up to one-third of members will retire, says Tom Owens, BCTD director of communications. “Transitioning military vets are ideal because their training, skill, discipline and overall makeup is a great match for our program. Veterans are used to getting up early in the morning, being part of a team and are mission-oriented.”

Vet training is key.
H2H National
Vet training is key.

Dudley Light, national H2H director for the carpenters’ union, notes the military’s focus on vocational skills and safety training. “Veterans we see have good OSHA training, particularly in confined spaces,” he says. Light recalls one veteran who learned laser alignment in a Navy print shop, a skill used in millwright work. “Vets don’t understand the wide range of jobs carpenters do,” he says.

The carpenters’ union has run its H2H program independently from BCTD since bolting from the umbrella group several years ago over union differences, but Light says the two programs still work together. H2H also has had administrative and financial ups and downs over the last few years. The building trades outsourced program administration after its creation but has run it in-house since 2006, says Light. Funding from the military also was cut significantly in 2008.

Military personnel are disciplined and motivated.
H2H National
Military personnel are disciplined and motivated.

Even so, there are successes. Light claims the carpenters’ union has absorbed “well over” 3,000 H2H-referred veterans into apprenticeships since 2003. BCTD statistics, available only for the past two years, show more than 18,700 veterans registered as H2H candidates in 2007, with 1,550 hired as apprentices or direct employees.

Damieon Tanner, an 11-year Louisiana National Guard veteran, served in Afghanistan with an engineering battalion but felt dead-ended working at a Wal-Mart distribution center. He signed up for H2H and was soon contacted by the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades for a job as a glazer. “I love my job, and I really do like glazing,” Tanner says. “I had thought about construction a few times but didn’t know exactly how to go about getting into it.”

H2H’s outreach efforts include military job fairs, transition programs and base presentations, where allowed. “We are not trying to steal people from the military,” Light says. BCTD’s recent hiring of Monster Government Solutions, a unit of online recruiter Monster Worldwide Services Inc., to run the H2H Website www.helmetstohardhats.org has boosted its profile. More than 18,700 veterans registered on the site in the last 10 months of 2007, Roberts says. “We are seeing about 2,000 a month this year.”

Trainees gain key skills in military.
H2H National
Chicago carpenters build house for a vet’s family.
Alan Klehr/Carpenter's union
Trainees gain key skills in military (top); Chicago carpenters build house for a vet’s family.

Veterans with prior construction experience may be able to take advantage of H2H’s “direct entry” feature through an agreement between the program and union locals, apprenticeship councils and labor agencies in 26 states, says Tad Kiecielinski, H2H communications manager. These vets ascend to the top of union employment lists and get credit for military training and experience. Maryland will join the program this summer.

That’s good news, especially for many young veterans, who earn less and have more difficulty finding jobs than civilians, says a Dept. of Veterans Affairs report. It indicates that, in 2005, about 23% of veterans were not in the labor force, up from 10% in 2000, Kiecielinski says. A 2007 survey by one military Website says 81% of returning veterans report being unprepared to enter the workforce. Three-quarters of that group can’t translate military skills to the civilian world or know how to negotiate salary or benefits.

Others point to physical and psychological wounds of recent military service overseas or just the impact of leaving military culture. “In the Army, everything is given to you, so coming out is a real culture shock,” says Dylan Tete, an Iraq Army veteran who is H2H field representative in five southern states. “In the mind of a guy who’s been shot at every day for the past 16 months, it means the world that he knows how to perform under stress. But what are your options? Flipping burgers at McDonald’s or stocking shelves at Lowes? You have all these skills, but what does it mean?”

Dylan TETE
“Everyone said transitioning back was going to be hard, but it was harder than I had imagined. Coming out was a real culture shock.”
— Dylan Tete,
h2h official and iraq army veteran

Tete, a West Point economics graduate, planned to earn an advanced degree in disaster management at Tulane University in New Orleans but Hurricane Katrina intervened, steering him into construction. He got a job building a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer park and joined H2H last year.

Stuart Morris is one beneficiary. He had carpentry experience and was a certified heavy-equipment operator but could not find steady construction work after being medically discharged in 2004 with post-traumatic stress disorder. He found H2H while surfing the Dept. of Veterans’ Affairs Website. Tete linked him with Bill Wright, business agent for an operating engineers’ union local. “They both had been in the military and knew what I was going through,” says Morris, who now works pipeline construction in Arkadelphia, Ark.

For others, H2H offers a chance to give back. Iraq Army veteran Ryan Francis joined a Chicago area carpenters’ union through the program. He recently joined other apprentices on a volunteer project to rebuild the house of a woman whose Marine son was killed in Iraq. Tete says the building trades offer a sense of family and camaraderie similar to the military. “It is one of America’s best kept secrets,” he says.