Ex-servicewomen and men in southeast Iowa are making a quick transition from Army green into construction neon through the help of Helmets to Hardhats, an online job search tool designed to connect veterans with career opportunities.
Vets create a profile and search for jobs by trade, location or union, which in turn helps get them enrolled in an apprenticeship program based on their military service experience.
"A big secret I've learned is you learn most skills by working with a craftsman who's been doing it for 30 years," said Ryan Drew, a businesses representative for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local No. 150. "The only way you do that is on-the-job training."
He stood with a young veteran turned union worker on the site for the new Iowa State Penitentiary outside of Fort Madison.
Jon Satler, 31, of Burlington joined the Marines after high school and served in Hawaii, Japan and Thailand. When he got out in 2003, he worked for the area Gibson and Dresser-Rand facilities but was eventually laid-off.
After 21 months of futile searching, he applied for a job as an operating engineer through Helmets to Hardhats. He joined Local 150 in October of 2011 and within three months was hired by Ryan and Associates to work at the prison site.
"I guess I'm just a little kid. I look at bulldozers and think, 'wow, that would be fun,' " Satler said as he stood next to his bright-blue forklift.
A large component of the program is enrolling veterans in local apprenticeship programs, and a portion of their wages goes into a trust to pay for coursework.
"Helmets to Hardhats is an avenue to get into an apprenticeship program," Drew said. For many, the skills they learned during military service gives them a leg-up in the competition.
Satler said he knows people who waited four to five years to be placed but his experience working as a mechanic on military trucks and Humvees helped get him a job and an apprenticeship within months.
It's a similar story for his cousin, Nick Satler, who works on a grain elevator site a few miles away from the penitentiary.
He crouched over a piece of long black piping, welding together a future gasline for the grain dryer. Clint Eddleman, Nick's supervisor and site foreman, stood close-by observing the work.
"We like ex-servicemen because they are committed people," Eddleman said. "We know they're not going to be guys who want to quit after six months."
Nick is a student in the five-year pipe-fitting apprenticeship program based in Cedar Rapids. He said he got a job in pipe fitting a month after applying.
Initially, Nick worried his four years as a crew chief in the Marine Corps would not be enough to qualify.
"I definitely attribute finding my job to that service experience," he said. "Everybody says that's what employers are looking for."
Many of the apprenticeships are college-accredited, and Nick could choose to enroll in 16 more credit hours after his apprenticeship to earn an associate's degree.
Helmets to Hardhats took a major financial hit in 2010 and international labor unions are trying to pick up the slack.
When the federal government erased for-profit, congressional earmarks in 2010, Helmets to Hardhats lost its $3 million budget, which funded 17 regional directors and staff who attended career fairs across the country and worked personally with soldiers through the hiring process.
"It really hurt me when the Department of Defense dropped their program sponsorship," said Melvyn Lowney, one of the regional directors who retired just before the cuts. "It was a very successful program until the bottom fell out with economy. Building and construction trades took an awful beating when economy went sour."
"When that happened, I was at a loss," said Darrell Roberts, executive director of the program based in Washington D.C. "Now its private investment from contractors and trades bringing the workforce in. The least the government could do is make (vets) aware of the program."
In 2009, the program placed 1,500 veterans into construction training, Roberts said. Now a non-profit organization, it placed 672 vets last year and raised slightly more than $800,000 in donations so far this year.
"It's very difficult to run a national nonprofit based upon the whims of people in the political climate in D.C.," Roberts said. "I wouldn't say that government funding is completely out the window though we cannot rely on it for sustainable levels of operation."
Even with such fiscal drawbacks, the program seems to still play a large role in the lives of vets in southeast Iowa.
According to data from Iowa Workforce Development, construction jobs are on the rise with 2,200 jobs added in September, the highest increase in all non-farm employment sectors.
The Union Plumbers, Fitters, Welders and HVAC techs started their own program when Helmets to Hardhats scaled-down called uavip.org.
"It's still a direct entry program from the military to apprenticeships," said Mike Machula, the training coordinator for the Cedar Rapids program.
Drew Lake, 23, of Muscatine joined the National Guard when he was 17. He returned home after two years in Iraq as a heavy equipment transport driver and his father-in-law got him connected with the local ironworker union.
After making an online profile on Helmets to Hardhats, he received a call to work on the new bridge in Burlington and spent a couple of weeks dangling over the Mississippi River, strapped in a safety harness with an air gun.
The bridge complete, Lake is laid-off and waiting for another call.
"I boom out if there's a job," Lake said.
He signed-up for another six years in the National Guard and like his military service, he's just waiting for a call from either side ready for wherever there is work to be done.
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