‘They’ve defended America, now let’s help them build it’: Experts talk combating construction labor shortage with veterans

Returning to civilian life from military service can be rocky. Veterans forge myriad skills while serving, but it can be challenging to tailor that expertise to nonmilitary jobs and even harder to use it to launch a career.

Yet the construction industry’s labor shortage is only intensifying, and experts say that veterans often have experience suitable for not only jobs in construction, but careers.

Some companies and associations in the industry even go out of their way to recognize veterans’ talents and offer hands-on training to transition former enlisted personnel into good-paying construction jobs. United Rentals says that it is one of those companies. Albert Hernandez, a United Rentals San Antonio branch manager, said that, based on his experience in 2009, leaving the armed forces can be sudden and uncertain.

“Literally, it’s almost over night,” Hernandez, a Marine, told Construction Dive. “You wake up and you’re a civilian again.” The transition feels so jarring because of the immediate lack of the regimented structure the military offers, he said.

To attract veterans like Hernandez, United Rentals implemented the Service to Employment Program (STEP), a 10-week program that gives veterans 120 hours of hands-on training with equipment and machinery at a United Rentals facility in Dallas.

No prior background experience is required. The veterans learn directly from a mechanic or technician and they are given their own tools, Hernandez said.

At the end of the program, United Rental helps the graduates apply for positions and relocate to one of its branches around the country. The initiative is growing, Hernandez said: United Rentals implemented STEP in 2013 and has 344 veteran graduates, including 55 in 2019.

Part of what makes STEP attractive to veterans is the stability, teamwork and consistency they are used to from their time in the service, Hernandez said. When he first entered the construction industry, Hernandez said he felt like just a number on a jobsite. With the hands-on education STEP offers, he said veterans feel like they’re part of a team, which helps curb the fears about their initial transition.

Training and Transitioning

Many veterans pick up skills in the armed services that are transferable to commercial construction, even if they need to be tweaked or changed to be more applicable. Associated Builders and Contractors’ (ABC) New York state chapter runs an education program at Fort Drum for Army veterans nearing the end of their service. Brian Sampson, president of the ABC Empire State chapter, said the organization sat down with leaders at Fort Drum to discuss how to aid with the transition.

“There was a skills crosswalk created,” Sampson said.

Army service members set to be discharged within the next six months can enter the ABC construction training program. Once enrolled, they learn basic skills including proper tool use, blueprint reading and construction math.

The soldiers then work together to build a shed to donate to a local nonprofit, Sampson said. At the end of the training, ABC helps them create their resumes and market them based on the hands-on education they’ve received.

ABC’s training program started 18 months ago, and Sampson said implementation took a while because the program had to be approved by the Department of Defense. Now, a DOD facility can reach out to local ABC branches to implement the program.

So far, a half-dozen DOD facilities have reached out, but none have implemented the program yet, Sampson said. It is likely to happen, though, because the ABC chapter has the highest job-placement rate of any training course at Fort Drum, he added.

Alain Moran, a veteran who earned electrical, carpentry and general contracting licenses ​as a civilian between two stints in the Army, now teaches a construction course at Fort Drum for soldiers leaving the service within 180 days. The class essentially crams a first-year apprenticeship program into a seven-week semester, Moran said.

“Really this is their starting step, their step into the door for the construction industry,” Moran said. He added he’s advised many Army service members to focus on learning applicable construction skills instead of going to college, which costs time and money.

Skill Transfer

The National Center for Construction Education & Research (NCCER)  is helping veterans not just learn new skills, but showcase those they learned while in the service.

“Construction seems like it would offer a natural transition from the military to industry, but it can be complicated,” said Rachel Burris, NCCER’s communication manager. “For example, while industry uses credentials to indicate skill levels, the military uses Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) codes, Air Force Specialty Codes (AFSC) and Navy Seabee rates to designate a specific job.”

NCCER and the Build Your Future military initiative, Hard Hat Heroes, created a portal for veterans to receive credentials based on their military training because the terminology between the two worlds differs so greatly. Associated General Contractors of America also partners with Build Your Future.

Veterans who served in the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps can submit their training information in 90 military specialties and receive industry-recognized credentials, Burris said. If a service member has a specialty missing, he or she can submit a request to have it recognized.

Recruiting

These programs are mostly nascent, and construction experts agree more could be done to recruit veterans.

“For one thing, I can’t remember ever seeing anyone from the construction industry at a job fair,” Hernandez said, adding recruiters should get involved with outreach programs like Wounded Warrior or those provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Sampson, who is optimistic that the New York ABC program can be implemented elsewhere, described veterans as “untapped potential” that construction companies should be pursuing more. When veterans want to go to school or into other industries instead of construction, Moran attributes it to poor marketing from the construction industry.

Burris said NCCER wants to show the lucrative career paths that the construction industry offers. Further tapping into veterans’ skills can show them the transition can be easy and fulfilling, she added.

“They’ve defended America, now let’s help them build it,” Burris said.

 

By: Zachary Phillips; Construction Dive on November 11, 2019