Recent history suggests post-9/11 veterans are having a difficult time finding jobs. According the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), unemployment for this group reached 12.1 percent in 2011.

In five years, that number dropped significantly. According to The Military Times, unemployment hit a record-low annual rate of 5.1 in 2016.

While those numbers may seem appealing, a large number of veterans are still struggling to locate employment.

The International Association of Sheet Metal, Air Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART) proposed a solution in the form of its Heroes program.

This program, which was established on Aug. 15, 2017, was created to provide free sheet metal industry training to enlisted U.S. military men and women who plan to enter civilian life within the year, which makes for an easier transition into the civilian workforce.

The program opened with eight soon-to-be veterans who graduated on Oct. 3, 2017. The second class began Oct. 17 , 2017, and graduated Dec. 12, 2017.


SMART Heroes allows soon-to-be veterans to participate and complete a seven-week course that counts for their first year of sheet metal apprentice training, a total of 224 hours. Once they graduate, apprentices have the option to select one out of 150 SMART apprenticeship programs throughout the country. As a second-year apprentice, they are also given the high probability of advanced placement and second-year apprentice wages and benefits.

The program is currently hosted by the Western Washington Sheet Metal Local 66 Joint Apprenticeship Training Center (JATC) in DuPont, Washington. They chose this location because of its close proximity to the Joint Base Lewis McChord, where the veterans in the program live.

The International Training Institute (ITI) develops the curriculum for the program, along with programs for 150 other sheet metal training facilities in the U.S. and Canada. ITI has even crafted a curriculum specifically for veterans.

“ITI has been instrumental in helping get the program started,” said Don Steltz, training administrator, Western Washington Sheet Metal Local 66 JATC. “They provide all of the training material and help get grants and other items donated to the program; they are the mothership of the training program. Without them, the program probably wouldn’t be a success.”

It’s this combination of efforts that has made the program a success, and the people behind it are passionate about it.

“The SMART Heroes program provides training and employment opportunities in the sheet metal industry to well-qualified military veterans,” said Jack Knox, president, Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors National Association (SMACNA). “SMACNA and SMART are proud to be able to give back to those who have given so much to us by their military service.

“SMART Local 66 and the Western Washington chapter of SMACNA, together, did a fantastic job of outfitting and updating the training center with the most modern equipment and facilities to provide the best education and experience possible,” he continued. “The training center staff and instructors are going above and beyond to deliver all that was expected, and more, to the program participants. We couldn’t be prouder of the job they are doing.”


During the 244 hours of training, veterans learn several skills, including core sheet metal, specialties, welding, architectural service, testing and balancing, and auto computer aided drawing (CAD).

The first six weeks are focused on core curriculum and U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) regulations. Within the seventh week, the program shifts to specialize in one of several entities for a total of 32 training hours, which helps veterans prepare for the specific field they’re most interested in.

While the program is still young, it’s been a great success, and veterans are pleased they heard about it through the career skills programs on base. They feel having a career in the trades is a good transition from one in the military because both fields require similar skill sets.

“The military is mostly hands on in how we learn,” said Rasheem Hargett, fire direction non-commissioned officer (NCO), U.S. Army. “We learn through hands-on [training] and being told what to do. So, as an apprentice, that’s the same way you learn, so why not? It transitions right over.”

Maya Fields, who has worked in logistics for the U.S. Army, agreed the transition to an apprenticeship has been easy coming from her background in the military, and she was drawn to it because, unlike a college degree, you are guaranteed a job upon graduating.

“I heard about the SMART Heroes program through a career skills program on base called Soldiers for Life,” said Fields. “I was interested in a career in the trades because I was told the trades are a good field to go into, especially when it comes to working for a union, because they look out for you. It’s also a skill set you can always fall back on — unlike with a college degree, where it’s hard to find a job.”

The idea of being almost guaranteed a job upon graduating was one of the most attractive parts of the program according to Fields and Hargett, and they both agreed they would recommend an apprenticeship to other military veterans.

“I would recommend an apprenticeship to anyone in the military,” said Hargett. “A lot of military veterans struggle or end up homeless. An apprenticeship program at least gets them a job right out the door and gives them some type of income when they don’t have any after the military.

“I think if this was introduced 10, 15, or 20 years ago, there wouldn’t be as many veterans who are homeless or struggling because they would have had the financial means to provide for their families and wouldn’t have that financial stress that comes along with the transition out of the military,” he added. 

Fields has found the skills she is learning during her apprenticeship are the foundation of her future career, and the instructors have been a huge help in her learning process.

“The instructors have been very helpful and when they teach, they teach you until you understand,” said Fields. “It’s been great. I’ve learned so much. Anything I didn’t understand, my instructor has helped me with.”

Hargett picked his JATC and plans to finish off his last six years of vet time in the Army Reserve while completing his apprenticeship. He plans to eventually pursue a career in sheet metal work and services.

Fields plans to move back to her hometown in Texas, enroll in a JATC, and become an HVAC technician.


SMART Heroes hopes to continue to work with other training centers near military bases all over the U.S. The plan is to keep the ball rolling and spread the word to other soon-to-be veterans looking for a career in their new civilian lives.

“SMART and ITI staff are identifying military bases that meet the program criteria and ascertaining their interest in participating,” said Knox. “We all hope that interest in the program from the military and our industry remains high and that funds are available to expand the program to other areas of the country so that we can provide even more opportunities for training and employment to our military veterans.

“As employers, we value these high-quality candidates — they are mature, mission-driven, have a great work ethic, and possess well-developed leadership skills,” he continued. “We see many of them as future company and industry leaders.”

Joseph Sellers Jr., general president, SMART, is proud of the program and hopes to see its success continue and spread far into the future.

“We are proud to have initiated this unique way to help with the transition of the men and women of the U.S. military who served our nations with distinction and honor,” said Sellers. “Unionized employers get to hire workers not only with the high quality skills our members bring to the job site but also men and women whose mettle has been well tested. Their character and leadership is second to none. SMART is proud to stand with them.” 

For more information on the SMART Heroes Program, visit

Publication date: 1/8/2017

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