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Commentary: Helmets to Hardhats helps veterans transition into civilian life, careers

President, Illinois AFL-CIO

For many veterans, moving into a meaningful career can be challenging, even alienating. Zara Jefferies’ union made the transition from helmet to hard hat smooth and rewarding.

Staff Sergeant Zara Jeffries

Zara joined the military out of high school, after trying college and learning it wasn’t a good fit. She jumped into an HVAC training program and ultimately became a staff sergeant in the Air National Guard – U.S. Air Force, where she serves today.

United Association (UA) Local 137 Plumbers and Steamfitters Union in Springfield reached out when they learned Zara was looking for an HVAC career.  Knowing her background in HVAC, they proposed she join the union’s apprenticeship program to train as a plumber through the national Helmets to Hardhats program that helps provide the licensing, certificates and professional training to veterans in a career similar to their military job.

Veterans name finding a job as the greatest challenge in transitioning to civilian life. Many employers see military service as a resume gap and others shy away from hiring active servicemen for fear that they will be deployed. Today, on this Veterans Day, Zara has the flexibility to take time off for drills and deployments. Through her union, Zara knows that her job is protected when she is called for duty.

Zara knows the other union members serving in her squadron. They share a bond, seeing each other at union meetings, on job sites, and even taking trips together on the weekends. They  created a deeper connection, personally and professionally. When her military time eventually ends, these connections will help her transition into civilian life full time.

As Zara Jefferies works happily toward her plumbers license and certificate while serving our country, many other veterans and servicemen without the added support of a union are not so lucky.

Veterans struggle to convert those skills they learned in the military into rewarding, meaningful careers back at home. They lack the professional networks needed to find the right career fit. They are unemployed or underemployed, even after showing the work ethic and discipline to serve proudly.

Tim Drea

The Helmets to Hardhats program is organized labor’s commitment to make those connections easier for our veterans.

We share a common purpose of a higher duty to service. Veterans often share the core values, specific training and an unrelenting focus on getting the job done right that makes them a success in union construction jobs. GI bill benefits allow veterans to go through on-the-job training – debt-free schooling where the benefits can be used as a monthly housing allowance during apprenticeships.

Across the United States for the past 20 years, Helmets to Hardhats has helped more than 41,000 military service members find high-quality careers and training in the construction industry. Today, the affiliate union and partner contractors operate more than 1,600 U.S. training centers. H2H identifies areas where veterans have a career interest, and then it connects them with appropriate apprenticeships to match those skills and interests in a location that works for them and their families.

Join us this Veterans Day in honoring our military service members and veterans by thanking them for their service, and take it a step further: if you know of a veteran who needs a better career direction, urge them to consider the Helmets to Hardhats program. Our veterans have proven they have what it takes to be successful, and organized labor wants to make sure they follow through on that promise.

Tim Drea is president of Illinois AFL-CIO in Springfield and is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps.

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