Even as the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed construction across the country, firms continue to struggle to fill jobsites with skilled labor, and one of the largest pools of attractive candidates is former military staff.
David Porter is the newly appointed executive director of the Helmets to Hardhats program for the North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) and its signatory contractor associations that operate the Center for Military Recruitment, Assessment and Veterans Employment (CMRAVE). Porter, a former pipefitter who headed pipefitting instruction at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, talked with Construction Dive about how contractors can attract veterans to the construction industry.
CONSTRUCTION DIVE: What is some practical advice for attracting veterans to join the construction workforce?
DAVID PORTER: The biggest thing as far as an attraction is to let it be known in your recruiting efforts of the benefits. You can make a good income and that's something I think needs to be pointed out. A lot of people … still view construction as something that you do in between, or you do because you couldn't take another route, when that's just not true. It's not the mindset everywhere, but that is an impression that people have.
The people you're working with are transitioning military because they [toured], but 70% only do one enlistment. And so most people are getting out quickly. They served their country, but when they're looking back, they are used to having insurance and retirement [benefits] provided by the military. And I think that's one of the biggest selling points, at least for the contractors I work with, because that isn't something in the general civilian population that's always out there. That's a really excellent selling point.
Where are veterans landing, both geographically and in the industry?
PORTER: We are tied to 15 construction trade unions that cover the full gamut of construction — whether it's the logistics of getting the [materials] to the work site, every aspect of building the building, the systems put into it, the finishing exterior and then the maintenance. So, any of the skilled construction trades is where they're landing.
It was my experience, particularly in Colorado Springs, there were a lot of people transitioning out that wanted to stay there because it's a great area. But in general, more people want to go back home or close to it. So, it's wherever they came from. It's [also] at least kind of in the vicinity of major metropolitan areas primarily.
How do you go about finding those transitioning out of the military?
PORTER: We start with going to the major installations. Our regional managers go to them all around the country and do presentations at transition classes and do direct boots on the ground outreach to them. The primary transitioning message is [from] colleges because they're there to grab everyone up because of the GI bill. But we try to ... offer apprenticeships as a viable alternative to the traditional college route. We also do advertisements, and try to direct people to our website in order to get any necessary information on how to get started.
What are the biggest advantages of hiring veterans?
PORTER: It's the intangibles. No matter what their discipline level, when they signed up for the military it was ingrained into them over however many years to do what you're told, not just to blow tasks off, and to have that work ethic. That has primed them to be more trainable.
Another advantage is the fact that they have been working in environments that are uncomfortable and rigorous. They're accustomed to getting sweaty and dirty. The physicality of construction is too much for a lot of people. It's not meant for everyone, but people that could cut it in the military, obviously it can be a good option for them.
And a lot of people went into the military in the first place because the college route didn't appeal to them. They're more mechanically inclined or want to do hands-on work. So veterans already are kind of pre-vetted people .... [and] that's why it's even more attractive to our partners and our affiliates.
The biggest thing preventing them is when it's time to transition out, the loudest message that they are hearing is to go to college. It drowns us out. That's been the message literally in high schools ... for the last 40 years. There are parts of the country where skilled trades are presented as a viable option, but not overall. And so that message has reverberated. I'm [hoping for] a paradigm shift away from that.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.