Building careers for 25,000 veterans (and counting)
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Veterans Day comes each year. Along with messages of sacrifice and gratefulness, let's agree to complement those heartfelt sentiments with something that really matters: the creation of career training opportunities for transitioning veterans.

The Department of Labor recently reported that the jobless rate for all veterans edged down to just under three percent in October 2017 – down from 4.3 percent in October 2016.

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While that is surely promising, we should look at more than facts and figures when analyzing veterans employment.

This isn't just about finding jobs. This is about building careers.

Employment numbers can be misleading. Underemployment – where people are employed at less than full-time or at jobs inadequate with respect to their training or economic needs – is a real issue. To be clear, our nation's heroes deserve more than jobs – they need quality careers that build skills to last a lifetime.

That is the goal of Helmets to Hardhats (H2H), a nonprofit organization that – over the past 14 years – has connected more than 25,000 veterans to the most renowned training programs the world has ever seen: the federally-registered apprenticeship training of North America's Building Trades Unions (NABTU).

By working alongside labor and management, H2H has been able to provide a vital connection to NABTU’s and its signatory contractors’ apprenticeship training – and, thereby, good-paying careers. 

Ensuring military service members are empowered to successfully transition back into civilian life must be a top priority for our nation. By securing connections to a quality career in the construction industry, along with robust training programs, H2H is doing just that.

Coupling the military and construction industries is, in many ways, an organic fit.

Both require structure, and safety is paramount. Quality, rigorous training is necessary – not to mention, individuals who climb the ranks in either space seem to possess similar qualities: grit and dedication, selflessness and adaptability.

Entering the civilian workforce can be tough.

I served in both the Navy and then deployed with the Army National Guard, so I know the challenges associated with coming home. I also understand the inherent value this apprenticeship training can bring, based on my experience entering the civilian workforce as a sheet metal worker.

Not only are careers in the construction industry well-thought-of, they can be lucrative – and fulfilling. From welding and pipefitting to sheet metal work and bricklaying, the needs of the building and construction industry are vast to say the least.

Within the building trades, individuals from all walks of life are empowered to succeed. The application process is straightforward, and getting started in an apprenticeship training program does not require any prior experience.

What’s more, throughout their respective training, apprentices receive paychecks and benefits – as the NABTU training is often referred to as "earn-as-you-learn."

Graduates are not saddled with debt upon completion of their training and veterans can even use their Montgomery G.I. Bill benefits to supplement their income.

Furthermore, the apprenticeship training – which lasts between three and five years – is privately-funded. Taxpayers do not pay a dime. NABTU and its signatory contractors invest more than $1.3 billion per year to fund and operate the training and education facilities – nearly 2,000 of them across North America.

And there’s more.

Individuals going through the training may even transfer their training to college credits, which, at times, leads to an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

Because of its proven value, apprenticeship training has been touted in recent years. Since 2015, the Department of Labor has invested $265 million to expand apprenticeships.

And when it comes to who benefits from this training, it is not exclusively the apprentices.

The Department of Commerce, as well as recent independent studies, have found that apprenticeships benefit both the apprentices and the businesses themselves. In fact, for every $1 invested in apprenticeship training, employers gain a $3 return on that investment.

More than 90 percent of apprentices find employment upon completion of their program – and, apprentices are more likely to finish their work on time. A win-win.

Our country was built by hardworking men and women with tenacity and drive. That same nation was empowered to grow and thrive thanks to the brave persons who have committed their lives to protecting us.

At the very least, it is our responsibility to connect members of the Armed Forces with sustainable, good-paying opportunities upon their homecoming. The training outlined above leads to real, meaningful careers – not lackluster, short-term gigs.

For Veterans Day 2017 – and looking forward – I challenge business leaders, elected officials, and other stakeholders to serve and empower those who have served. An investment in our veterans and their livelihoods is an investment in our nation’s future.

Darrell L. Roberts – a proud veteran, husband, and father – has served as the Executive Director of Helmets to Hardhats for the past decade.