Troops To Trades helps veterans, plumbing and HVAC industries

Nov. 30, 2014
Keith Mercurio, training manager for Nexstar Network, is the brainchild of the Troops To Trades program. Troops To Trades is  helping the trade industry as a whole. Troops To Trades will be a referral resource for veterans. Many Troops to Trade committee members are donating their time.   

LITTLE CANADA, MINN. — As 2014 winds down and a new year is about to begin, the Troops To Trades program, created by The Nexstar Legacy Foundation to help U.S. veterans obtain the necessary skill sets to work in the plumbing and HVAC industries, is continuing to pick up speed.

Keith Mercurio, training manager for Nexstar Network, is the brainchild of the Troops To Trades program – about two years ago he had an idea that would help returning servicemen and servicewomen, the plumbing, HVAC and electrical industries, and the U.S. as a whole. When Mercurio sat down for lunch with Jack Tester, CEO of Nexstar, he spoke with Tester about his idea and received the green light. Mercurio created the proposal, including the goals of training and helping employ returning veterans, thus, the Nexstar Legacy Foundation adopted it as one of their programs.

Nexstar Training Manager, Keith Mercurio, kicks off the Nexstar Legacy Foundation live auction to benefit its scholarship and recruiting efforts, including the Troops to Trades program.

Just this September, during the Nexstar Super Meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona, Troops To Trades hosted The Changing Lives ceremony — a fundraising and dinner event. Approximately 400 Nexstar members attended the ceremony.

According to Mercurio, $110,000 was raised during the silent and live auction that took place. Fifty-two people raised their paddles for Troops To Trades, raising $71,000 in donations. Sponsorships of the event ranged between $15,000 to $20,000. All together more than $200,000 was raised.

“My focus for the evening was the Troops To Trades program,” said Mercurio. “The most powerful moment of the night came from Troops To Trades veteran Scott Heberling when he shared his story with the audience. He really moved the crowed.”

Many veterans can relate with Heberling’s story. He is an Air Force veteran, and when he came out of the military and moved back home to look after ailing parents he assumed he would be able to find a job. Heberling started to look for a job in different industries, and employers kept telling him that he wasn’t current and didn’t have the experience to be hired even though he had great military skills. As time went on it became really difficult to find a job, and he refused to take help or go on unemployment.

Heberling spoke about when he was having a tough time making ends meet, and how Troops To Trades helped him get the job he has now. Heberling decided to look into the Troops To Trades program, and attend Build-A-Tech, which is in partnership with Lennox. He was then employed by Nexstar member Plumbline Services, based in Denver, Colorado.

Other partners for Troops To Trades include Ultimate Technical Academy and AC Pro.  Ultimate Technical Academy provides training at cost for the program, and AC Pro provides a $5,000 scholarship for veterans.

Besides Heberling, two future award recipients were also introduced to the crowd, Anthony Rodriguez and Jon Rios. Both men are leaving the military and entering the Build-A-Tech program.

“These two men are looking for a direction as they head out of the military,” explained Mercurio. “Both men had multiple job offers that evening — it was really powerful.”

“These guys are the reason we are doing Troops To Trades,” added Mercurio. “As we hear these stories my goal is to be able to create a level of interest from businesses that allow us to create campaigns exclusive to hiring veterans. Through that we can funnel vets into the Troops To Trades program.”

The big picture

Troops To Trades is not only helping veterans find jobs when returning to civilian life, the program is also helping the trade industry as a whole.

“We have the ultimate pipeline to fill a bunch of holes in our country and in our industry,” explained Mercurio. “There is a lack of high quality employees, plus a future shortage of technicians, and there is a lack of educational programs available to move people toward the trades. However, there is the most ideal set of candidates (from the military) that are struggling to find a direction, and find the support they need.”

Scott Heberling, Troops to Trades veteran, shares his story of the difficulties he faced finding employment after leaving the military.

During the Nexstar Super Meeting Brad Krause, owner and president of The Service Professor, Grand Rapids, Michigan, presented a breakout session about hiring veterans.

According to Mercurio, Krause took it upon himself to research and host the session, where he trained members about how to access and leverage the GI Bill to hire veterans, and how to supplement and create wages these men and women are used to receiving as military.

“The major issue is veterans are coming out of the military and to get started in an industry they are being asked to take $13 and $14 an hour positions,” said Mercurio. “They can’t sustain their family and lifestyle on these wages. What Krause did was share what he found out from working with the GI Bill — the GI Bill will supplement income as long as that technician is in an accredited program in a qualifying state, which most are.

“You can still pay standard apprentice wages of $13 or $14 dollars an hour and the GI Bill will supplement those wages up to $12 or $13 an hour,” added Mercurio. “Not many people know this can be done. Brad did his research and brought it to members’ attention.”

“The most important thing for contractors to know is that as long as the state approves your apprenticeship training program, through your state’s own approval agency, you can use the GI Bill,” said Krause.

Krause is passionate about helping veterans find jobs in the trades since his grandfather was a WWII veteran, plus he has respect for all military veterans. 

“There are no apprenticeships or curricula in high schools anymore to prepare young adults for a possible career in the trades, so this is another reason for my passion,” explained Krause. “We can capture people with great skill sets — they have the discipline, politeness, are team players, etc. Veterans are great people that want jobs. We just need to teach them the craft since they have such a great skill set already from the military.”

Krause recently hired a 34-year old Marine, Justin Babcocks, who had completed 18 years of service in the military. A couple other veterans have recently joined his company. 

Also, in August, Troops To Trades hosted an outreach event with military organizations and Gillece Services, Bridgeville, Pennsylvania.

“Gillece Services highlighted what they are doing locally to help veterans,” said Renée Cardarelle executive director of Nexstar Legacy Foundation. “For the Nexstar Super Meeting breakout session, we used the Gillece Services model and added Brad Krause’s research and facilitation. Moving forward, we plan to offer this as an information workshop for other local markets.”

2015 and beyond

According to Cardarelle, Troops To Trades will be a referral resource for veterans.

“I would love to be able to start referring veterans to companies when they call me,” said Cardarelle. “We want to create the ability for veterans to connect with businesses in the industry. We are creating a business network, which will be open to anyone in the industry that may want to hire or be a mentor to a veteran.  In addition to this, we will go out to communities and work with them locally to make connections.”

According to Mercurio, the key to additional growth and to help more veterans is to continue to gain support for this program, as well as folks taking action beyond their support.

“You hear about Gillece, and unless you put this into practice and share it, no one would know about it,” said Mercurio. “We have people taking action and doing something about it; a lot of people are talking about the program. It’s a bug in the ear of Nexstar members, and word is spreading.”

Mercurio also points out that many Troops to Trade committee members are donating their time. 

“I really want to emphasize the businesses who have been working with us to grow this program,” said Mercurio. “They all took a chance with us when we started this. They invested in us, and we are committed to paying that forward for our veterans and our industry.”

About the Author

Candace Roulo

Candace Roulo, senior editor of CONTRACTOR and graduate of Michigan State University’s College of Communication Arts & Sciences, has 15 years of industry experience in the media and construction industries. She covers a variety of mechanical contracting topics, from sustainable construction practices and policy issues affecting contractors to continuing education for industry professionals and the best business practices that contractors can implement to run successful businesses.      

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