“Soldiers who have just left the military aren’t as marketable as civilians,” said Brandon Andre Thomas, a veteran who once served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and recently completed the Veterans in Piping (VIP) program. “A lot of companies may seem pro-military, but they won’t hire veterans because they see them as damaged goods,” he said.
“Prejudice is one of many concerns that returning veterans need to address,” said Anne St. Eloi, M.Ed., a special representative to the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing, Pipefitting, Sprinkler Fitting Industry of the U.S. and Canada (UA). St. Eloi developed the VIP program. This nationwide initiative prepares veterans for lifelong careers in the construction industry. “That is why the VIP program begins with two weeks of transitional training,” she said. “This training helps them to readjust to life in the civilian world.”
St. Eloi spearheaded the development of the VIP program at the request of William Hite, the general president of the UA. “It’s the right thing to do,” Hite said, “since these veterans have given so much to their country. We want to help them to enjoy a fresh start after their service.”
“The UA doesn’t want today’s veterans to struggle when they return home, just as many veterans from Vietnam are still struggling today,” St. Eloi said. “Historically, veterans have always been under-employed. If they can find work, it’s usually something low-paying that doesn’t match any of the skills they’ve learned in the military. That needs to change - and that’s why the VIP program exists.”
HOPE AFTER REJECTIONAfter Thomas left the military, he faced rejection many times because of his status as a returning veteran. “I was really surprised by the negative responses I got during job interviews,” he said. “I thought people would be happy to hire veterans. But they think we all must have post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Thomas’ life and career took a turn for the better when he saw a flier stating that UA Local Union 26 was looking for 18 veterans to become pipefitters. He did not know anything about pipefitting and had no construction experience, but decided to check it out. “Reading that flier changed my life,” he said.
The VIP program was initiated in the state of Washington in late 2008. “Our first class of returning veterans was so successful that we’ve already lined up a second class,” St. Eloi said. The UA is also gearing up to work with the National Guard in Hawaii and Colorado, and both the U.S. Marines and the National Guard in California.
IMPORTANCE OF TRANSITIONAL TRAININGThe VIP program features 16 weeks of hands-on welding training. Skilled welders are in short supply, St. Eloi noted, and the welding training element helps to ensure that the veterans will be in demand on construction sites nationwide.
When St. Eloi was developing the program, she soon realized it needed an additional, preliminary element: two weeks of transitioning training. “Going from a structured military life to a civilian career is a huge step,” she said. “Plus, the majority of veterans entering the program had returned from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. They needed to switch not only from military to civilian mode, but also from war to peace mode.”
Program participants receive their training from Judae Bost’n, Ed.D., a trainer/counselor with Bates College, Tacoma, Wash. “One must remember, any branch of the military spends a minimum of $50,000 per person to train someone to join the military ranks - and those are just the basic skills,” Bost’n said. “This training affects the way soldiers think, act, and react, to keep them alive in combat. They know their training so well they can put themselves on autopilot. Soldiers need to work in concert, with no room for error.”
When soldiers return home, Bost’n said, their military training can clash with civilian life. “Once they return to the everyday world, they find out that people don’t work in concert as they do in the military. I have to take them back to who they were before they received their military training. They need to take stock of their personal gifts, strengths, and attributes.”
The VIP program’s transitioning component is held eight hours a day, five days a week for two weeks. It is very intensive, with strong follow-up. “I give them the start-up skills and monitor their progress from there,” Bost’n said.
The veterans are really enjoying their work with the unions, Bost’n noted. “Union life is a culture that is both agreeable and understandable to them,” she said. “Union members, like soldiers, receive a lot of training and have well-defined roles among their personnel. Union members call each other their brothers and sisters, and that kind of camaraderie appeals to veterans.”
It is especially important for career-conscious veterans to receive transitional training, Bost’n said, so they can face the challenges they must face - including prejudice. “Sadly, employers may assume that returning veterans have PTSD and would make poor employees,” Bost’n said. “And of course, that is not true. It’s always a mistake to make broad assumptions about others.”
Bost’n added that even within the military, there is a stigma associated with PTSD. “Some members of the military might assume you are weak if you have PTSD,” she said. “But actually, those members of the military who do have the disorder work very hard to receive the treatment they need.”
A FRESH START IN CONSTRUCTIONThomas now works for JH Kelly, an industrial mechanical contracting firm based in Longview, Wash. He began working with the company as an apprentice with UA Local Union 26. “They gave me a warm welcome when I got there,” he said. “I hit the ground running, and I’m learning a lot there.”
Thomas is also a member of the Army Reserves, and works for them one weekend a month and two weeks a year. “JH Kelly is very supportive of my work with the Reserves,” he said.
Thomas now feels secure about his future and feels ready to face any challenges that might lie ahead for him. “I’m glad I found the VIP program,” he said. “It’s what I needed, and it’s what a lot of other returning veterans will need when they head back home.”