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Helmets to Hardhats Helping Veterans Begin Sheet Metal Apprenticeships at Higher Clip as Demand Climbs

via Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

via Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

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The Helmets to Hardhats program was recently featured in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, in a piece that describes how it has helped Wisconsin veterans bolster an aging workforce.  

The program helps military service members transition to civilian life by assisting them in entering union apprenticeships.  For their investment, unions gain new workers who have demonstrated their work ethic in the military and have the disposition to become excellent tradesmen and women.

The Journal-Sentinel piece features 26-year-old Erik McKenna, a retired member of the 173rd Airborne division, who is now on his way to becoming a sheet metal worker. McKenna earned an Army Commendation Medal for Valor after helping rescue a fellow soldier during a firefight in Afghanistan.  According to McKenna, the skills he learned in the military have helped him in his apprenticeship journey:

”The military helped me prepare for environmental and job stresses. Some days the cookie doesn’t crumble the way you want it to.  The military definitely helped me learn how to pick the pieces up and move on.”

There are currently more than 1,500 veterans who have created profiles on the Helmets to Hardhats website.  Many have learned about the program through career events and job fairs.  The program helps these veterans apply for apprenticeship openings in over 15 trades. According to Josh Frehner, training coordinator for the Milwaukee Area Sheet Metal Training Center:

“Those guys come to work with their boots tied, ready to go. They’re not afraid to get their hands dirty, whether it’s hot or cold outside.  I don’t want to say that’s unusual, but sometimes with the newer apprentices, they’re not sure of what they’re getting into.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that there were over 141,000 sheet metal-related jobs in the United States in 2014.  That number is expected to rise by 7 percent in the next decade, meaning some 10,000 new sheet metal jobs will be added to the economy. Median pay for a union sheet metal worker is $45,070.  

Bill Mulcrone, Midwest regional director for Helmets to Hardhats, told the Journal-Sentinel:

“We have 250,000 veterans a year getting out of the military.  Some are already in construction in the military, maybe they’re (Navy) Seabees or combat engineers, so they’re already trained.

They served our country, and now this is their ticket to the working middle class and they can earn a paycheck while they learn a skilled trade.”

Since joining the Sheet Metal Workers, McKenna has worked on Schlitz Park construction, the apartments above Mo’s Irish Pub, The Shops at Grand Avenue, and a building next to the Riverside Theater.  The sheet metal training center in Milwaukee recently added an extra spring class due to demand from the new Milwaukee Bucks arena and the recently announced athletic research center at Marquette University.  Many believe there will be a high level of work in the region for an entire decade.  

Josh Frehner explained the route most veterans must take in order to join the program:

Prospective sheet metal apprentices can either come through Helmets to Hardhats or by filling out an application at Local 18 and taking a test at Milwaukee Area Technical College’s Oak Creek campus in reading, arithmetic and basic algebra. Once they pass, they’re given a list of contractors seeking apprentices. For the first 21/2 years, apprentices go to school one day and work on job sites four days each week while also taking two night school courses. Out-of-pocket costs are minimal, which means they are not burdened with student loan debt.


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