Helmets to Hardhats helps veterans return to normal life
By EDWARD COLIMORE | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: March 27, 2013
Drew McIlhenny doesn't talk much about the combat he faced in Iraq or the loss of five fellow Marines during his unit's deployment to Al Asad in 2006 and 2007.
The Port Richmond man focuses on friendships with service buddies, his young family, and a new civilian job as a sheet metal worker.
Bryan Hummel, a Marine reservist who lives in Erial, Camden County, also concentrates on a sheet metal career -- made possible for him and McIlhenny by a national federally funded program, Helmets to Hardhats.
They and thousands of other veterans across the country completed online resumes and profiles, and were fast-tracked to training and jobs in the building and construction industry because of their service.
The help is welcome, considering that the jobless rate among veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq was 10.9 percent in August 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's most recent data. In the wider population of all veterans, the unemployment rate was 9.9 percent; the rate for non-veterans was 7.9 percent.
But Helmets to Hardhats "made the [military-to-civilian] transition easy," said McIlhenny, 28, a journeyman who builds ductwork and installs heating and air-conditioning units. "You can't beat the job for the amazing money and benefits."
Hummel, 23, an apprentice, said the program represents "an awesome opportunity" for veterans.
"Many struggle when they come back" to civilian life, he said. "They go to school or are at a standstill with the high unemployment and nobody hiring."
Hummel and McIlhenny have both taken classes at the training center of Sheet Metal Workers Union Local 19 in the 1300 block of Columbus Boulevard in South Philadelphia.
"There's a difference in the mentality, discipline, and work ethic that a veteran has compared with someone who is 22 to 25 and makes an application after coming from another job, no matter what it was," said Aldo Zambetti, coordinator of the training center.
"There's a difference because the attitude and work ethic were drilled into them by the military when they became soldiers."
Many developed skills in the service that help them in their civilian careers, said Zambetti, 50, a longtime sheet metal worker who lives in Norristown.
"Some of them have done heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning work in the military," he said. "Others have worked on the bodies of helicopters or jeeps.
"There are many qualified people," he said. "What we have done for our vets is create a direct-entry method."
Helmets to Hardhats identifies nationwide career opportunities, then helps match former military personnel with work.
Job candidates in a registered apprenticeship program can collect their GI Bill benefits, up to $1,075 a month, plus wages.
"The normal application process [for non-veterans] takes 18 months," said Zambetti. "But veterans coming through Helmets to Hardhats can be put in the program tomorrow, and that means they have a job.
"They enter as a first-year apprentice and go through 41/2 years of training," he said. "They get paid $17.86 an hour as an apprentice and that goes up to at least $38 when they become a journeyman" 41/2 years later.
Veterans often rise through the ranks "because of their background and leadership skills, becoming a project manager or job foreman," Zambetti said.
Usually, 10 percent to 15 percent of apprentices are veterans, he said. Seven of the 76 now in the program have entered through Helmets to Hardhats. "Our attrition rate is 7 percent with the regular apprentices," Zambetti said, compared with zero for the Helmets to Hardhats candidates. Some non-veterans "find the work in construction physically or mentally challenging in the classroom and on the job.
"They might not pass the drug testing," he said. "But we have never lost someone from Helmets to Hardhats, because they've already decided their job is more important than any illegal activity."
For Hummel and McIlhenny, the program was a good fit.
"I love what I'm doing," said Hummel, who has been running ductwork this week through a Center City high-rise. "I want to continue what I'm doing."
McIlhenny, who is married and has a 4-year-old girl and baby boy, is waiting to begin his next job assignment. "I make great money, I like the work, and have made a lot of good friends," he said.
For more information, go to the Helmets to Hardhats website.