As the construction industry continues to struggle with a significant labor shortage, a number of industry leaders who are looking for answers think they may have one: military veterans.
Helmets to Hardhats, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC and run by the Center for Military Recruitment, Assessment, and Veterans Employment, has been working since 2003 to recruit military veterans into construction trades — and they believe more significant recruiting efforts can help mitigate the current labor crisis.
Martin Helms, the organization’s incoming executive director, noted that the strengths of the military — including requiring adaptability from its members when “nothing goes as planned” — are also strengths within the construction industry.
“Military people are put in crappy situations for a lot of reasons,” said Helms. “You don’t know what your environment is going to be, and who you’re going to have to deal with. So you build a mental capacity that makes you adjust to whatever that environment is to accomplish the mission.”
A veteran himself and former participant in the Helmets to Hardhats program, Helms noted his belief in the way the program works, saying “The day I heard about Helmets to Hardhats changed my life.”
Helms also sees similarities in the structure of the jobs’ requirements as selling points for veterans. “[Military members] are used to being there and at a certain time and having a job to do,” he added. “That fits into the structure of the military. You have to be there at a certain place and time to be ready to go. And you typically know what has to be done.”
Of course, there’s more work to be done rather than simply identifying places where veterans can find a good fit — recruiting is a major issue.
“We also need to do good outreach,” Helms added. “We have just gotten through 18 or 20 months of the pandemic and there are service members who need good jobs.”
Helmets to Hardhats DC isn’t alone in trying to take a new look at the way that the construction industry is interacting with the labor pool. Other organizations have similar ideas — and they’re even using similar names to get their ideas off the ground.
July 2021 saw city and county leaders in Jersey City launch their own program designed to help military veterans transition into construction industry careers, with a particular focus on women and minority demographics.
The name of their program? Also Helmets to Hardhats, of course.
“We have been very successful in getting women and minorities into construction union apprenticeships and are excited with now having the resources provided by the state to recruit and train military veterans so they too can have a career as a laborer, carpenter, plumber, or truck driver,” said Hudson County Commissioner William O’Dea about the initiative. “They gave for our country, and now we can give back to them.”
“I’m one of the 7% of Americans who are veterans,” added Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, a US Marine Corps veteran. “Jersey City is a diverse community and home to many veterans who proudly serve their country and return home to find themselves in need of work. This program provides that direct connection to meaningful employment, which can often be a major challenge for veterans reintegrating into civilian life.”
There’s support for this at the federal level, too — the Washington, DC Helmets to Hardhats organization has relationships with the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs.
Similarly, President Biden has been careful to note the importance of pushing the labor crisis within the White House’s recent advocation for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (passed by Congress and signed into law by Biden on November 15, 2021) and the Build Back Better Act, passed by the House of Representatives on November 19, 2021, with a Senate vote upcoming.
“America is still the largest economy in the world. We still have the most productive workers and the most innovative minds in the world, but we risk losing our edge as a nation if we don’t move,” Biden said, adding that lawmakers aimed to “create good-paying jobs that can’t be outsourced. Jobs that will transform our transportation system with the most significant investments in passenger and freight rail, roads, bridges, ports, airports, and public transit in generations.”
The labor shortage in construction has been having a tangible impact on contractors and small businesses for the duration of the pandemic, and it could get worse before it gets better.
According to the Home Builder Institute, the construction industry needs over 2 million more workers over the course of the next three years to keep up with historical demand.