Lacey, Wash. — The United Association of Plumbers, Pipe-fitters and Sprinklerfitters has created a program to help returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans find jobs. Returning veterans often find themselves unemployed, with bleak odds for finding good, long-term employment. The rate of unemployment among veterans of the U.S. armed services is a staggering three times that of those non-veterans in the same age group of 22-24-years-old. The discipline, ethics and values taught in the military are not tangible assets on a job application.
This national crisis is now being addressed by an organization that couples the intangible characteristics taught by the military with specialized training in a field ripe with opportunity. The UA has developed the Veterans In Piping (VIP) program, including an accelerated welding component, which offers promise for lifelong employment and up to one year's credit toward the UA's five-year training program.
“It's the right thing to do,” said General President William P. Hite. “These men and women have given so much to their country, and we want to reward them with a life after their service to their country.”
UA Local 26 in Lacey, Wash., was the first UA Local to kick off the program in August, working with the Washington National Guard and Washington State Veterans Affairs. This initiative was publicly recognized with a recent tribute at the Local 26 training center. Several hundred people, including high-ranking members of the military, public officials and supporters of the veterans attended.
The keynote speaker was Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, an active supporter of the returning veterans. “Now it is our duty to serve our military men and women coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan after they served their country so selflessly,” she stated. “And we need to seize that wonderful military training, put it to work for them and put it to work for us.”
This isn't the first endeavor by UA leaders and members to aid military veterans. The organization was one of the founders of Helmets to Hardhats. The union also uses the not-for-profit Hire a Hero for recruiting and works closely with the armed forces Wounded Warriors Programs. However, the VIP program is a separate UA initiative and a great passion of President Hite's. To spearhead the program, he chose as his special liaison, Anne St. Eloi, UA special representative for training.
Immediately after being given the assignment, St. Eloi ran with it. One of the first things that she figured out when structuring the program was that it couldn't be just 16 weeks of hands-on training. She saw the need for another important piece — transitioning. Going from the structure of military life to a civilian career is a big step. In addition, the majority of the students had returned from deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of the students would need to not only switch from military to civilian mode, but from war to peace mode. It was then decided to add two weeks at the front end, with continued support, making it a full 18 weeks, two to transition and 16 weeks of formal welding instruction.
“The training and skills our Armed Forces acquire are too often undervalued and not translated into civilian terms,” St. Eloi said. “President Hite's vision for training our military heroes is to transform their skills, dedication and commitment into real civilian employment competence in the realm of the piping industry. And, this program is such a success that it will be the model for other programs around the country.”
Judae Bost'n, an outside consultant and certified trainer and counselor, was brought in to facilitate the first two weeks.
“They need to get into a mode other than military,” Bost'n said. “Here they learn to deal with issues — both at home and within the workplace — that are different than the military.”
The students go through exercises as a group, where they're screened and tested for aptitude and interests to make sure the program is the right place for them.
“This program taught me how to communicate effectively with my family in a tone that was non-military,” said Brandon Andre Thomas, a seven-year Army veteran who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“I learned the kind of person that I am and what valuable skills I carry to the workplace and to my family,” commented Enrique Rosano, an Army veteran who served in Iraq.
“I'm a single dad raising three kids. This program means a better chance at life for us. Everyone in the training program has been a support team for me,” added Brian Haskan, 10-year Army veteran who served in Iraq and Kosovo.
On the day of the Washington tribute, Mike Arndt, training director of the UA, and Gov. Gregoire, met each of the students, thanked them for their service to the U.S. and welcomed them into the program.
“We at the United Association are dedicated to making sure that we are there for every veteran that serves us when they come back,” said Arndt. “A lot of good can come out of this. The returning veterans get great jobs with good pay and good benefits.”
The governor added, “We are a country that needs our infrastructure to be built and rebuilt. You are the workforce of today and tomorrow that will make that possible.”
The military is a strong supporter of this new plan, as well.
“This is the prototype that is going to revolutionize the way military transitioning into the civilian sector takes place going forward,” said U.S. Marine Corps Major General (Ret.) Matt Caulfield.
In addition to helping returning vets, the training of this military workforce will fill a huge gap left by retiring welders and tradesmen.
“No other source provides a better recruitment tool to fill the ranks of the retiring baby boomers,” stated Phil Dines, business manager of UA Local 26. “These men and women possess the necessary leadership skills, critical thinking skills and a desire to learn.”
One Washington contractor, J.H. Kelly, has stepped forward to offer employment to the veterans when their training is complete.
Arndt announced at the meeting that the next training session in Lacey would begin on Feb. 2, 2009, with a new group of veterans. However, the UA and the military both agree that the training needs to be a nationwide initiative, not just a commitment by isolated states or regions of the country.