Jim Meiner worked as a deck seaman before leaving the U.S. Navy. The experience, however, offered him little hope of finding meaningful employment in a tight civilian job market. He had toiled at a retail discount store for long hours and few benefits before enlisting, and at age 25, as discharge drew near, he dreaded returning to a low-wage, dead-end job. But that's what he did.
Mike Laney, 23, and Paul Mazur, 26, faced the same bleak job prospects when they left the military. Laney, a Marine infantryman, and Mazur, a Coast Guard fireman, wanted rewarding civilian careers, not low hourly wages. They both feared their military experience might work against them, rather than the other way around.
The three Chicago-area veterans were strangers to each other until early last year, when through their families, friends and a chance conversation, they together signed up for a weekly training course to become union journeyman pipefitters. Each says he owes his new career to Helmets to Hardhats, a national program that is connected to The American Legion through its partnership with Military.com.
"It's a dream come true," says Laney, who heard about Helmets to Hardhats while talking to a United Association Local 597 union worker and his nephew, just out of the Marines. "There's not a lot of opportunities for a Marine infantryman like me in the civilian world. So to get hooked up with a career that pays well and has great benefits - it's fantastic."
About 350,000 men and women are discharged from the U.S. military every year. Many joined with few marketable skills, served their country with honor and discovered abilities they never knew they had. Often, though, they return home to uncertain futures. Some just go back to their old jobs, if they still exist. Others have trouble finding fulfilling work that matches the pace of military life. They discover that the dots between boot camp and career track are sometimes hard to connect.
Meiner, Laney and Mazur say they are fortunate to have found Helmets to Hardhats, which accelerates the process of turning military experience into civilian certification and acceptance. It's the fastest way for military men and women to find meaningful work, says Tom Aiello, a vice president of Military.com.
Launched in 2003 with funding from the Department of Defense, the Helmets to Hardhats program is intended to ease the difficult transition to civilian life often faced by U.S. military members and their families seeking out the best possible career opportunities, pay and benefits.
The program unites veterans with the nation's 15 top construction and building trade organizations and their employer associations, Aiello says. The organizations represent 3 million construction workers and 82,000 contractors nationwide. Thus, Helmets to Hardhats is beneficial to employers as well as job seekers.
"Like the military, we are looking for a few good men and women," says William P. Hite, general president of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry of the United States and Canada. "We want people who share our vision and take pride in their work. That's why we're opening our doors to our troops, Guardsmen and reservists through Helmets to Hardhats - because they are America's finest."
"Military veterans represent a resource for highly skilled talent," Aiello says. "They are highly trainable, which makes them ideal for union apprenticeships. Also, a veteran's strong leadership skills can fill critical shortages for foremen and site managers in the construction industry. Employers look for the discipline, maturity and leadership qualities possessed by military veterans. Getting them together is a win-win proposition."
Helmets to Hardhats is not, however, a placement service. It's a program that tracks career opportunities in the building and construction trades and provides servicemembers with that information via the Internet. When a servicemember or veteran expresses interest in a particular job opportunity, a Helmets to Hardhats representative contacts the applicant.
Finding a career opportunity through the program isn't difficult. Veterans simply log on to www.helmetstohardhats.org/, fill out a personal profile and begin searching for career opportunities. If military skills certify a candidate as an expert in a particular construction trade, he or she might skip certification tests or enter the industry at a higher level than others. Candidates needing to learn a construction trade can be trained at no cost while earning decent wages and benefits. GI Bill benefits may also boost training income above the average wage during apprentice training.
In Chicago, more than 800 veterans have enrolled in apprenticeships through Helmets to Hardhats, says Bill Mulcrone, the program's Midwest regional director. A current crop of 56 apprentices trains at a suburban Chicago facility, with a class of 32 comprised solely of veterans enrolled through Helmets to Hardhats.
"Opportunities for apprenticeships in the building and construction trade industry nationwide is driven by contractors - the employers," Mulcrone says. "Our challenge is to point out to employers the benefits of hiring veterans. It's an easy sell once we get a foot in the door."
The challenge, he admits, is to spread the word to as many veterans and soon-to-be veterans as possible so they become aware of career opportunities out there.
Helmets to Hardhats is a success story made possible by an aggressive marketing strategy, and support from Military.com.
"Military.com is the world's largest military community with over 10 million members, and over 900,000 veterans a month coming to us looking for jobs," Aiello says. "As a result, we are driving thousands of these veterans a month to the Helmets to Hardhats site. In addition, Helmets to Hardhats is present at every Military.com and Monster.com presentation to veterans."
Sometimes a friend or family member can be the most effective recruiter, he adds. "Unfortunately, word of mouth reaches too few veterans or employers. So we have a cadre of field representatives out in the communities making contacts. Also, new technology is giving us an opportunity to make Helmets to Hardhats interactive online. Those entering the Web site for the first time can interact with veterans already in the program. Interactive networking ratchets up our capabilities and opportunities a notch."
While the Helmets to Hardhats charter focuses on the building and construction trade industry, the program is not limited to that industry or its unions, nor to skilled physical-labor candidates.
"Employers are looking not only for skilled trades, but also managers and other skill sets," Aiello says. "Construction companies love to find managers and engineers. They offer great opportunities for disabled or severely wounded veterans. Employers are looking for surveyors, dispatchers, estimators and other back-office functions. That's why we want to make sure we carry everyone through the process."
Aiello says he does not envision Helmets to Hardhats as a be-all, end-all for veterans seeking careers. The program is just one item in the toolbox.
"I talk to 5,000 to 10,000 veterans a year, and I always advise them to put a lot of irons in the fire because they never know where the next opportunity might appear," he says. "I talk about the job boards, posting résumés, career fairs and programs like Helmets to Hardhats. I talk about military headhunters, networking and one-stop centers. It doesn't take long for a veteran to see where results are coming from and to concentrate on what's working for him."
For returning military men and women, Helmets to Hardhats is often a godsend, offering a rare opportunity to translate military experiences into lifelong professional careers with good wages and strong benefits.
"I couldn't be more pleased that our technology and military expertise can play a role in helping to perform this vital service," Aiello says.
Mazur, the young veteran who had no idea what to do after he left the service, never misses an opportunity to praise the program.
"Once I learned about Helmets to Hardhats and signed up online, my life changed for the better," he says. "It's comforting to know that I have the opportunity to become a journeyman pipefitter so that I can support my wife, Vicky, and our 16-month-old baby girl, Marianna. I'm thankful every day I go to work or school that I learned about Helmets to Hardhats."
James V. Carroll is an assistant editor at The American Legion Magazine.