Local Unions and Businesses Help Vets Get to Work

Filed under: Featured News,Labor,Subject Categories |

by Carmen Del Raval

GARY MASINO’S Sheet Metal Workers’ Union Local 19 takes the lead in taking on veterans as skilled-trade apprentices.

GARY MASINO’S Sheet Metal Workers’ Union Local 19 takes the lead in taking on veterans as skilled-trade apprentices.

When Evan M. Wilson was honorably discharged from the US Navy in 2013, the native of Pennsauken, N.J. thought he had the world at his fingertips, thanks to his experience as an aircraft logistics specialist.

But the transition to civilian life proved complicated. In his mid-20s, with a young son to support and another on the way, Wilson needed better income than he’d once earned with sporadic construction jobs. Like most veterans, however, he lacked both a college degree and the recent work experience many employers seek.

Wilson’s lucky break came when his best friend tipped him off to apprenticeships offered through Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 in Philadelphia, a union that partners with the nonprofit organization Helmets to Hardhats to fast-track veterans into construction careers.

“All I needed to do was provide all my credentials from the military,” said Wilson, who in 2015 began his four-year paid apprenticeship with Air Concepts, an air-conditioning contractor in Bristol. “I just knew I had the discipline from the Navy to catch on quickly, and I was good with my hands, which really helps.” As a full-fledged journeyman sheet metal worker, Wilson can eventually expect to earn an annual salary in the neighborhood of $100,000 with solid union benefits – precisely the kind of stable, middle-class career that so often eludes US military veterans.

Connecting vets like Wilson with those hard-to-find jobs is a cause that has steadily gathered momentum over the past 15 years, both in Pennsylvania and nationally. The employment landscape has long been “a complicated and challenging place” for the state’s 364,000 working-age ex-service members, said Joan Nissley, communications director for the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

But even as veteran-friendly industries like manufacturing have declined, other opportunities have presented themselves, giving rise to a crop of public and private initiatives to ensure that military vets, including those who are disabled, take full advantage.

VETERANS hard at work at Ernest J. Menold, Inc.

VETERANS hard at work at Ernest J. Menold, Inc.

The building trades, for instance, are actively seeking to replace a retiring generation of skilled laborers. Aided by groups like Helmets to Hardhats – which has placed more than 22,000 ex-service members in jobs over the past decade – Pennsylvania’s powerful unions are recruiting veterans to fill plum spots in carpentry, electrical, and sheet metal work, as well as in related hands-on fields like transportation.

“Around 2002, there was a huge push to understand where skilled labor was going to come from, where we were going to get the next workforce,” noted Darrell Roberts, the executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Helmets to Hardhats. One logical answer: workers discharged from the military, who are accustomed to physical labor and eager to “earn while they learn,” as Roberts put it.

While about 10% of Helmets to Hardhats registrants aim for managerial roles, “these apprenticeships are our bread and butter, and where the majority of our vets want to go,” said Roberts.

His own career makes a good case: Having learned welding and sheet =-metal skills in the Navy, Roberts joined Local 19 while continuing to serve the Pennsylvania Army National Guard and eventually was hired as the state’s first program director for Helmets to Hardhats. Along the way, he was deployed to Kosovo, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business – and became an example of how skilled labor can build not only houses, but also serious careers.

“The opportunities are boundless; it’s what you want to do and where you want to take it,” said Roberts. That’s true to some extent – but it’s also undeniable that government programs play a critical role by subsidizing trainees, incentivizing veteran hiring and bringing employers and workers together through placement offices, websites and job fairs. Since the early 2000s, there have been stepped-up efforts at both the state and federal level to reintegrate vets into the workforce, making success stories like Roberts’s far more likely.

Trainees like Wilson, for instance, pay their rent with housing stipends thanks to the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which expanded the traditional college-tuition benefit to include financial support for on-the-job apprenticeships. And the Vow to Hire Heroes Act of 2011, which was recently renewed, offers tax credits for employers who hire ex-service members, along with increased funding for training in high-demand specialties like machine operation or heating and ventilation.

In Pennsylvania, state policy has long favored veterans for hiring and promotion in government jobs; soon that preference will likely expand to the private sector as a result of the Pennsylvania Startups for Soldiers Act, which passed both houses of the state Legislature this fall and is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf.

Employers are evidently persuaded. Even with the ongoing erosion of manufacturing jobs, veteran unemployment declined significantly in recent years and is actually slightly lower than that of the overall population, both statewide and nationally. Only 4% of ex-military workers were jobless in September 2016 – a nearly 50% decline from five years ago, when double-digit rates inspired the Vow To Hire Heroes Act. And while Pennsylvania’s median income was $28,000 in 2014, the last year for which figures are available, veterans did much better, bringing home about $33,000.

Ernest J. Menold, who routinely employs veterans at his eponymous third-generation sheet metal business, prizes the maturity that accompanies military experience. “I find that the vets who come in, compared to their counterparts of similar age, have more sense of responsibility,” said Menold, who co-chairs the Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee for Philadelphia-area sheet metal contractors. “Some of them even come in with job skills. We owe it to them to find them employment.”

Gary Masino, Local 19’s president, said the union tries to recruit a half-dozen apprentices each year from the military to join its 4,300 workers throughout Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey. Regardless of experience, “we find that the apprentices that come to us through Helmets to Hardhats bring a real work ethic,” explained Joseph Frick, the training coordinator for Local 19, where the average ex-military apprentice is about 25. “They follow orders and directions well. And that’s half the battle – getting people to show up on time every day.”

Requirements and pay vary, but even starting apprentice pay is often higher than the low-wage service jobs many non-college-educated men might otherwise take. “Most of us take a pay cut to come into the local, but we know at the end of our apprenticeship it’ll pay off,” explained Wilson, who draws on his GI Bill benefits to fill the gap.

New hires at Local 19 start at 40% of the journeyman wage, with a 5% raise every six months. At IBEW Local 743, the $12.17 starting hourly wage rises to $34.77 by the end of the five-year apprentice program, with health and pension benefits paid by the employer – “and at zero cost to the taxpayer,” Pinkasavage pointed out.

Still other unions recruit for apprenticeships run through employers like SEPTA, which offers VA-approved programs to train overhead linemen and signal maintainers. George Bannon, who organizes SEPTA apprenticeships as business agent for Transport Workers Union Local 234 in Philadelphia, said veterans are attractive to many industries not only for their leadership qualities, but also for transferable skills, like driving large vehicles. “It’s just the environment that’s different, trains as opposed to an active combat zone,” explained Bannon, who served in the Marine Corps. “But the veteran has a lot of resolve. He’s willing to learn, take risks.”

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