Strategies and Programs for Translating Military Experience to Construction Jobs
Between 240,000 and 360,000 military members transition to civilian life each year. The shift isn’t always easy, leaving many veterans unemployed. To help put them to work, more than 100 construction industry organizations—including Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) and many of its members—pledged in 2014 to employ 100,000 veterans by 2019.
“When it comes to industries in which veterans are uniquely qualified, construction is fantastic because it really brings out a lot of veterans’ skills,” says Lida Citroen, founder of LIDA360 and author of “Your Next Mission: A Personal Branding Guide for the Military-to-Civilian Transition.” Despite being a great fit, connecting veterans with construction jobs proves to be challenging.
Many veterans entered the military shortly after graduating from high school. While their civilian peers entered the job market and began developing skills, veterans were busy with intensive military training. As a result, many lack the knowledge and tools needed to transfer their military training to an applicable civilian career.
Citroen has spent more than 30 years helping companies and individuals enhance their personal branding and differentiate themselves from the competition. Over time, she began specializing in helping veterans.
Sometimes, veterans gain skills in the military that directly relate to construction, such as handling logistics in the Army or being a mechanic in the Navy. More often, their skills sets don’t match up to construction quite as well. Citroen helps those veterans determine the soft skills that indirectly relate to construction, as well as demonstrate their work ethic and trainability, such as dependability, communication and leadership abilities.
“When you hire people off the street, there are a lot of things you don’t know about them that you know about a veteran. They follow orders well, work as a team, communicate well, have tremendous leadership skills and know how to work toward a mission,” says Jamie Van Voorhis, senior manager of workforce development for Jacobs, an international construction firm.
Amber Peebles, president of Athena Construction Group, understands the value of hiring a veteran firsthand. Peebles and her businesses partner are former Marines. Athena Construction Group, based in Dumfries, Va., is the only HUBZone-certified and service disabled-, veteran- and woman-owned construction company in the country, which sets it apart from the competition.
“Construction is a tough industry, and clients want to be able to partner with companies that can work through the tough times,” Peebles says. “Our qualities are an unconscious recognition of what our company is about.” In addition to strengthening the company’s reputation, Peebles’ military experience often helps her career.
“The Marine Corps is a very strong community,” she says. “If I need help with an issue I’m working through, I can reach out to my network. That’s just standard practice for any veteran.”
Understanding the value of military experience, Peebles has veterans on staff from the Marine Corps, Army and Navy. “While having a military background doesn’t get you the job, it does put you at the front of the line for consideration.”
Cultivate Relatable Company Values
Providing a work environment in which veterans thrive can be difficult for a company that lacks leaders with military experience. Veterans can see right through companies that state they want to start programs to support the military, but fail to produce results, Citroen says.
“If a company promotes leadership, integrity and community service—and lives those values—then it probably would be a good fit for a veteran,” Citroen says. “It’s when companies promote values that aren’t authentic that there’s a challenge.”
To create an environment that will attract and retain veterans, Citroen suggests the following steps.
Start off small. Companies with a huge goal for a huge initiative often haven’t set realistic expectations. If the bold objective isn’t met, the company feels as though it has failed and moves on to the next initiative.
Allocate the right resources. Come up with a five-year plan with realistic financial and staff commitments. Don’t jump right into an 18-month plan.
Gain support from the top. Without a champion in the C-suite, the initiative probably won’t be successful.
Veterans who apply to work at Athena Construction Group generally trust the company because it is veteran owned. Veterans also tend to relate to what is expected of them when working for the 100 percent Marine Corps-owned company. “We demand integrity, accountability and a high level of dedication and professionalism. It’s not a culture for everybody,” Peebles says.
“I don’t tolerate much, especially not giving 110 percent. While I’m compassionate if someone is going through a hard time in their life, I don’t enable. I don’t let life’s daily distractions keep people from performing. I have an obligation to the entity, and I have to make sure my decisions and approach to things are consistent so everybody has a future with the company,” she says.
Translate Military Training to Construction
Companies that are a good fit for veterans must learn to understand how military skills can be applied to construction. Jobs held by military members are identified by a Military Occupational Specialization (MOS) code. The key is to align the skills associated with MOS codes and the skills associated with jobs available in construction.
NCCER, a 501(c)(3) education foundation that develops curriculum and assessments for the industrial and commercial construction industry, came up with a solution. It developed the Military Crosswalk, a tool to align MOS codes for each branch of the military with similar jobs in construction to help veterans and employers understand how the skills match up. Veterans can look at the Military Crosswalk for their MOS code to see the jobs for which they are best suited, as well as the jobs’ predicted growth and wage averages. Alternatively, the Military Crosswalk allows an employer to look at an applicant’s MOS code to see if skills will apply to the company’s specific job needs.
Recently, NCCER partnered with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take the Military Crosswalk a step further. They are working on determining the specific tasks veterans learn during training based on their MOS codes to see how those skills relate to topics in the NCCER curriculum. Once that alignment is established, veterans will be able to earn credit through NCCER based on skills already gained during military training.
“The military is thrilled because they want soldiers to get credit for what they have already learned,” says Jennifer Wilkerson, NCCER’s director of marketing, public relations and Build Your Future.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) also recently stepped in to help veterans and service members gain access to NCCER training. It approved GI Bill funding that can be used by those with military construction training or experience to cover the cost of exams for many NCCER journey-level craft and management assessments. The VA will pay for each written and performance assessment whether the student passes or fails. The VA also will reimburse organizations that offer the NCCER assessments, as well as service member or veterans who pay for the assessments themselves.
In addition, NCCER’s publisher, Pearson, pledged to provide NCCER’s Core Curriculum to veterans for free (up to $1 million). The Core Curriculum covers math, power tools, blueprint reading and other basic skills necessary for a career in construction.
Train for Specific Construction Skills
Once a company determines how a veteran’s skills directly and indirectly relate to its job needs, it must begin developing a training program to teach them the remaining skills necessary for the job and put them to work.
Athena Construction Group places employees on jobs that are similar to or just above their skill levels. It also pays for employees to take a safety training program that is part of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ carpentry apprentice program, which takes four years to complete.
At a minimum, Athena Construction Group employees are certified in OSHA 10, first aid and CPR, furniture installation, forklift operators and lift training. “It goes right back to our military background,” Peebles says. “If you’re not working, you’re training.”
Many companies such as Athena Construction Group see the value in veterans’ soft skills and put programs in place to develop their construction skills, but others are hesitant. Though veterans gained plenty of valuable skills during their time in the military, they often lack experience that directly relates to working on a jobsite. Despite contractors wanting to put veterans to work, they can’t afford to hire a person without job-ready skills.
To solve the problem, ABC’s San Diego Chapter came up with a plan to help veterans develop a valuable construction skill set and quickly make themselves more marketable as an asset to a construction company.
The chapter joined forces with the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) to provide an accelerated safety certification program through classroom learning at the school and hands-on training at the chapter’s training facility. At the end of the course, students earn a Safety Specialist Certificate and are placed in an internship with an ABC contractor member.
“Veterans are a great group to draw from because they are already so familiar with safety,” says Shandon Harbour, vice president of education at the ABC San Diego Chapter. “What they do every day in the military, such as weapon training, is so safety related; they are already so safety conscious.”
Students attend the course for 40 hours per week for 10 weeks. Each week focuses on an aspect of safety or leadership students would need on the job. Topics include EM385, military base safety, electrical safety, scaffolding, PPE and other subjects required for the safety certificate. Classes are taught by multiple instructors who also teach for ABC or UCSD. The last week of class focuses on leadership and developing skills to help participants land a job, such as tips for interviewing and writing a résumé.
Harbour works with ABC members to place the students in internships. She sets up the meetings and informs the companies when the interns will arrive, taking some of the pressure off students for one of their first post-military job experiences.
“The members want to do anything that helps the vets, and they want to support ABC,” Harbour says. “This program works for them because they also need safety eyes and ears on their jobsites.”
This year marked the first time the class was held. Going forward, the ABC San Diego Chapter plans to hold the program twice per year, with the next course starting in March 2016.
How to Find Veterans to Hire
Many national and local government and private programs work to connect veterans to employers. NCCER and its Build Your Future initiative, which promotes construction as a career, created Hard Hat Heroes to help recruit, train and hire veterans. The Hard Hat Heroes program provides free online training to service members and veterans. It also includes a database where veterans can post their résumés and employers can post job openings, as well as a list of military-friendly construction companies veterans can contact.
Jacobs works with Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), an office of the Department of Defense that promotes cooperation and understanding among members of the National Guard and Reserve and civilian employers. Jacobs uses ESGR’s website, Hero 2 Hired (h2h.jobs), to post job openings and recruit members of the military and transitioning veterans.
Jacobs also is in the process of developing a JumpStart program with the Texas Veterans Commission that will provide veterans with pre-hire training to earn entry-level credentials using NCCER’s Core Curriculum.
The ABC San Diego Chapter takes advantage of the many military bases in the area, including Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and Marine Corps Base Pendleton, by running ads about its training programs in military-related publications.
In addition, the chapter and its contractor members regularly attend and speak to transitional classes, which are required for military members who are close to returning to civilian life. That allows students to understand the training opportunities available with the chapter and the job opportunities in construction. The chapter also works with HirePatriots.com and the National Veterans Foundation to run job listings and attend career fairs.
Written by Jessica Porter, a contributing writer to Construction Executive.