Some War Veterans Are Constructing a New Career with Helmets to Hardhats


Helmets to Hardhats gives war veterans jobs.A program called Helmets to Hardhats is helping military veterans become construction workers and make the transition to new civilian lives.

After serving in Iraq for 13 months, installing wire and cable to help soldiers communicate with each other, Eric Cohn was sure life stateside would be much easier than in a war zone.

But he quickly learned it wasn't carefree. Newly married, Cohn found jobs that barely paid enough to get by, offered no health benefits and made no promises for the future.

"You couldn't find anything with security," said Cohn, 25, of Brick. "They could fire you the next day."

Cohn's fears have since eased. He is one of dozens of workers participating in Helmets to Hardhats, a program designed to help veterans join construction trade organizations, which long have touted lucrative pay and benefits in exchange for blue-collar work…


Launched in 2003 with funding from the Department of Defense, Helmets to Hardhats provides an important link between veterans and soon-to-be-veterans and 15 building and construction trade organizations, said Tom Aiello, marketing director for Helmets to Hardhats and vice president of Monster Military.

The organizations represent 3 million construction workers and 82,000 contractors nationwide.

The program is run by the Center for Military Recruitment, Assessment, and Veterans Employment, a joint labor management committee created by construction trades and various employer associations.

Helmets to Hardhats boosters say it fills a void. Veterans historically have had trouble making the transition to civilian life, but have skills and discipline that the construction industry covets.

"I think it's a great idea," said Bernie McElwee of Lake Hiawatha. "It provides an opportunity for a lot of service people who would otherwise be at a loss. Skills such as operating heavy equipment would be ideal in construction or related areas for those returning. They don't necessarily have to go back to school to learn something completely new and that make for a smooth transition."

As the state service officer for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, New Jersey Department, McElwee is the point person for "helping put a life together," he said. "For some it's quick and easy, and in other cases it's like pulling teeth."

The Department of Veterans Affiars will help with vocational or educational counseling "for those who want to expand their educational horizons,"and also direct them to professional contacts and Internet resources such as Helmets to Hard Hats.

"This generation of veterans is very computer savvy with being online," McElwee said.

At their fingertips is Helmets to Hardhats. The idea: to take veterans, guide them through apprenticeships and make them journeymen.

Helmets to Hardhats is free to veterans, labor organizations and contractors. The online advantage allows homecoming veterans to sign up while still on assignment and even specify a desired location. Once entered into the system, apprenticeships and contractors have access to their skill set and pick and choose appropriate candidates.

"While returning vets out of the gates take a break to decompress, they have this anxiety about the job search," he said. "They wonder, 'How will my military experience translate to the real world?' For many of them who went right from high school, say, into the Marines and enlisted for five or six years, this is their first time in the job market."

The U.S. unemployment rate for veterans ages 20-24 was 10.4 percent in 2006. That was down from 15.6 percent in 2005. But it still was higher than both the overall unemployment rate of 4.6 percent and the unemployment rate of 8.2 percent for all workers ages 20-24 in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Carl Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, said the reasons are varied. Among them:

• The skills learned in the military aren't a precise match for the skills needed on the job. For example, tanker truck drivers in Iraq need different skills than tractor-trailer drivers in the United States.

• People who enlist in the military drop out of the work force for as long as their commitment lasts. It takes time to write a resume, make hiring contacts and perfect interviewing skills needed to land a job.

• People returning from war often face emotional and physical problems that need to be treated.

"We've had this repeated issue of higher unemployment rates for veterans," Van Horn said. "It's not unique to the Iraq war, but it's a continuing problem that seems to me needs to be addressed, if for no other reason than these folks made major sacrifices and we owe it to them."

New Jersey labor officials are honing in on Helmets to Hardhats. The state used a $240,000 federal grant to pay for the program and enlisted the New Jersey State Building & Construction Trades Council to operate it.

"The workers that come out of the military not only have talent and work experience, but also have a work ethic and discipline that they learned in the military that makes them ideal candidates for the rigors of construction work," state Labor Commissioner David J. Socolow said.

About 100 veterans have registered for the program since it started in January, said Jeanine Nagrod, who, along with Frank "Butch" Wade, coordinates the program.

Nagrod and Wade recruit candidates and explain the 15 different trades that the council represents — from electrical workers to ironworkers. They prepare them for an entrance exam that tests math skills. They give them a primer on interview techniques.

If the veterans pass, they enter an apprenticeship, which can last three to five years but generally offers solid pay and benefits, before becoming journeymen and taking jobs that can pay more than $30 an hour, provide health benefits and offer pensions, officials said.

"One of the biggest problems with young people in the trades is the responsibility of getting up and getting to work on time,"Wade said. Veterans, however, have "developed some kind of regimen. They have the ability to follow direction and take orders. Being where they need to be is pretty easy for them."

Officials cautioned there is no guarantee for veterans. The trades are competitive; each opening gets multiple applications. But some of the trades have begun to give special consideration to them, Nagrod said.

"Building-trade jobs are not for everybody," said William T. Mullen, president of the New Jersey State Building & Construction Trades Council, a coalition of 15 trade organizations that is administering the program. "They're hard, tough, demanding jobs. You are out in the cold weather, the hot weather and everywhere in between. But the military people have that background to adapt."

For Cohn, the program made sense.

He joined the Army after graduating from Freehold Township High School in 2000, left for Iraq shortly after the war started in 2003 and built communications networks for soldiers.

Cohn talks about his experience in Iraq with little nostalgia. He didn't think twice about re-enlisting –"I would have killed him," his wife, Katie, said — and was honorably discharged in 2004.

Upon returning to New Jersey, he found his skills were in demand, but the job market was soft. One job paid $15.50 an hour with no benefits. Another required him to commute 70 miles one way to Clifton.

With little interest in sitting in an office, Cohn decided to apply to join Helmets to Hardhats. He passed each test along the way and now is an apprentice with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 456.

For now, Cohn is working for a contractor on power lines — a difficult job that will force him to climb telephone polls in the sweltering summer. But it offers the security he has been looking for.

"It's looking a lot better for me and my family and my career," Cohn said. "I know what I'm going to do for 30 years. There's no more looking for something better."

Editor's Note: There are thousands of jobs listed RIGHT NOW by employers who want to hire veterans in many different types of jobs–not limited to construction. If you are a veteran making the transition from Military to civilian, please visit

 If you are an employer, seeking a good man or woman to hire for your position(s) please check out www.hireveterans and list your job(s) available there and thank you for employing America's BEST!


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