Local career options abound for returning veterans
By Jordan Rosenfeld
Returning military veterans who are looking to transition into a new career have incentives to look into the trades, thanks to a regional program and local community college courses.
Now is a great time for veterans to think about getting into the trades, despite low unemployment rates in the Bay Area, according to Marie Amboy, director of the Strong Workforce and Career Education program at the Peralta Community College District. “I hear all the time from our employers that we’re not producing enough skilled workers.”
To be sure, according to a joint report from the US Chamber of Commerce and USG, a construction materials manufacturer, nearly 65 percent of small contractors are having trouble finding skilled workers.
Eddie Alvarez, business representative for the Alameda Building & Trades Council, based in Oakland, said this gives veterans an advantage. “There’s so much work right now in the East Bay. Someone who is coming out of the military is going to be offered an easier route in because they have that real-world experience,” he said.
To facilitate these job connections, Helmets to Hardhats (HH) is a statewide program with regional focus “that aims to get veterans into apprenticeship programs with national building trades,” Nick Weathers, western regional manager of the program, explained. HH has relationships with employers in “every single trade.”
The program’s primary goal is to “target transitioning service members before they get out and back home,” Weathers said, because this allows veterans to come up with a plan and be ready for work as soon as they get home.
The program connects veterans to state- and federally-registered trades seeking workers through the HH website, which Weathers assured is user-friendly. “Once [veterans] create an account, the trades and signatory contractors post their opportunities.” Veterans can plug in their Zip Code to narrow down jobs within a customized radius of mileage.
Wages for the three-to-five-year-long apprenticeships start at approximately 50 to 60 percent of what a journeyman makes, Weathers said, but “as long as they’re doing everything they should be in the program, they’ll get raises every six months.”
Additionally, along with medical benefits on most jobs, HH helps veterans understand and utilize their GI Bill benefits, which are benefits that help service members and eligible veterans cover the costs of getting education or training. This “helps bridge the gap” financially of a starting salary, Weathers pointed out.
While the job opportunities posted through the website are available to any applicant, Weathers said that veterans get a preference “in one way or another.” Some of the trades might waive fees or exams; others will still require an entrance exam “but they often give them extra points, so that works out in the veteran’s favor,” he said.
Weathers said the program is so successful, because “a lot of the same reasons that make a veteran successful in the military will make them successful in the construction industry, which is very fast paced and relies upon discipline and camaraderie to get jobs done.”
Alvarez echoed Weathers’ point that veterans make especially great candidates for work in the trades because both worlds require some similar training, long hours, and occasional travel. “[Veterans] understand the rigors of a disciplined worksite. They understand rules and regulations, and that’s a big advantage.
“There is not a single trade that does not have the potential to be a good spot for somebody coming out of the military,” Alvarez stressed. He gave an example of how working on a Navy ship could translate over to the trades: “Anything from sheet metal (work) to electronics to construction to pipe fitting.”
In addition to HH, Laney Community College in Oakland, one of the four East Bay Peralta colleges, offers a number of courses and certifications in the trades in such areas as machining, woodworking, carpentry, construction, electrical, HVAC, electronics and more.
Raya Zion, employment services center and industry engagement manager at Laney, is eager to spread the word about their Industrial Maintenance fall program, “a one year program learning foundational skills in repairing and maintaining technical equipment in the machinist trades,” Zion said.
The center is holding an orientation session for the program on June 19 at 7 p.m. in Building G, Room 200 on the Laney campus. There will be several other orientations for the program later in the summer.
“Companies are dying to hire veterans…because they have the soft skills and the responsibility factor, and they’re very accountable,” Zion said. She has seen numerous veterans hired directly out of the program by such companies as BART, Tesla, Bayer and many others.
Once a week, Ivan Roena meets with veterans who are students to help them with career-related issues such as how to translate military experience into trade-specific job experience for a resume.
One of those vets is Todd Moore, a 27-year-old Oakland resident and former corporal in the Marine Corps.
Moore enrolled in a 2-year machining course at Laney in August, 2014. There he earned his machining certification and his college general education. He then got a job working for the East Bay Municipal Utility District.
“It’s the best decision I made [for my career]. I got out of the Marines and didn’t know exactly what to do. I was looking to gain new job skills after I left the Marines, so I used my GI Bill for that,” he said.
Moore credited the VA Center at Laney for his start in the trades.
“The job is great. I’m making a good income, doing something I really enjoy, something I’m passionate about, making things and repairing machines,” Moore said.
In addition to offering certifications that give veterans immediate job skills, Zion said, “[Veterans] get a higher education as well, and they’re starting a career.” Peralta’s certification programs are “stackable” meaning that a veteran can come, complete one, go on to work in the field for a while, then come back and take additional certifications or pursue a BA or master’s degree.
“If they come to school, it’s so easy to find a job,” Zion said.
In addition to academics, Laney and the other three Peralta colleges have wraparound support in career education specifically for veterans, since veterans qualify as an “underserved and underrepresented group,” said Amboy. She defined this as “resources that wrap around the student holistically rather than just focusing on the academic side.”
The Veterans Affairs Center at each college helps connect veterans with services ranging from administrative help with paperwork to career counseling and mental health services. “Many of them need support to make sure they’re able to persist and complete the programs,” Amboy explained.
For future workers, Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) has also seen the writing on the wall; they’re bringing back vocational training in several of Oakland’s high schools. Fremont, Skyline and Castlemont high schools and Montero Middle School have received grant funding from the California Apprenticeship Initiative Program, funded through the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.
Alvarez said that, compared to other fields, getting trained in the trades is relatively quick, and starting pay is relatively high. “I can’t think of any other job at the entry level that starts at $20 an hour on your first day.”
Jordan Rosenfeld is a Bay Area freelance writer.