HELMETS TO HARDHATS Helping former soldiers find new careers in the trades

By Laurel Sallie

ON NOVEMBER 6, 2013 Esprit de Corps reporter Laurel Sallie sat down with former Brigadier General Greg Matte to discuss the many benefits the not-for-profit organization Helmets to Hardhats has to offer recent veterans of the Canadian Armed Forces.

Many Canadian Forces members develop numerous diverse skills during their service, including carpentry and  construction. Helmets to Hardhats Canada helps turn these skills into a new career for retired service members interested in the construction industry. Pictured, a Haitian carpenter works with members of the 3R22R Battle Group to build a temporary shelter for the Haitian community of Leogane, Haiti, following the catastrophic earthquake that rocked the island in 2010. (cpl pierre thériault, combat camera, dnd)

Many Canadian Forces members develop numerous diverse skills during their service, including carpentry and  construction. Helmets to Hardhats Canada helps turn these skills into a new career for retired service members interested in the construction industry. Pictured, a Haitian carpenter works with members of the 3R22R Battle Group to build a temporary shelter for the Haitian community of Leogane, Haiti, following the catastrophic earthquake that rocked the island in 2010. (cpl pierre thériault, combat camera, dnd)

WHAT DOES A VETERAN have to offer that you won’t see on his or her resume? Resiliency. The ability to adapt to a new challenge. A teamwork mentality. Dynamic multi-tasking skills. An innovative and creative mind and much more. These individuals are tasked with protecting the safety and freedom of our country and, in the process, they become equipped with skills and a mindset that aren’t particularly mainstream. So what happens when the military no longer becomes an option due to injury, lack of support, or any number of other reasons?

Men and women now often enlist in the Canadian Armed Forces at such a young age that the resume padding experi­ences that are offered to their peers — such as university or college, extracurricular activities, and/or part-time jobs — aren’t a reality for soldiers. This leads to an inability for many veterans to compete in the job market, a poor outcome for the individuals who enlisted their lives for their country.

Joe Maloney is not a veteran, but in many ways he is a hero. This American boilermaker saw the inadequacy of soldiers returning home without an opportunity to transition into civilian life with pride and ease. Maloney called for change in his own country and, in 2003, he saw the genesis of the American Helmets to Hardhats (H2H), a program that bridges the gap between the military and the construction industry.

In many ways the trades are an impeccable fit for the men and women who serve. The similarities between the trades and the military are numerous: a sense of brother- and sisterhood, long hours, gruelling work in often tough conditions, a necessity of teamwork, stressful circumstances, and often a nomadic lifestyle as one has to go where the work is. This is a job description veterans find extraordinarily similar to their military careers.

American veterans took quickly to the new prospects that H2H had to offer. Maloney wanted Canadian veterans to have the same advantage. As a result, the American tradesman spearheaded the initiative to start Canada’s own H2H program. And after years of lobbying to trade unions, labour associations, and the three layers of government as well as a serendipitous meeting with Jack Layton on a flight from here to there, Helmets to Hardhats, a non-for-profit program, was introduced as a line item in the 2011 budget.

CWO (ret’d) Mike Nassif (left) had an illustrious career in both the Regular and Reserve forces of the CAF prior to joining H2H in October 2012 as director of placements. Executive director BGen (ret’d) Gregory Matte has been a driving force in H2H Canada’s success, helping to expand the notfor-profit agency’s accessibility and reach for transitioning veterans of the Canadian Armed Forces. (laurel sallie, esprit de corps)

CWO (ret’d) Mike Nassif (left) had an illustrious career in both the Regular and Reserve forces of the CAF prior to joining H2H in October 2012 as director of placements. Executive director BGen (ret’d) Gregory Matte has been a driving force in H2H Canada’s success, helping to expand the notfor-profit agency’s accessibility and reach for transitioning veterans of the Canadian Armed Forces. (laurel sallie, esprit de corps)

“There was a need for skilled people who are dedicated and who can work outdoors in challenging environments,” said Greg Matte, executive director of H2H. “We have a bunch of veterans who have served their country and who are having a hard time getting a good job. Why don’t we bring those two together?” said Matte of the need for a similar program in Canada.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government offered a one-time grant of $150,000. Provincial governments followed suit as Alison Redford offered $150,000 from the Alberta government, Dalton McGuinty $150,000 from the Ontario government, and New Brunswick showed their support with a $50,000 endorse­ment. Although this may not seem like much in terms of funding, Matte said the legitimacy that politicians give to the program by endorsing it so publicly is just as beneficial. Harper continued his endorsement by having it mentioned in the 2013 Throne Speech.

Some aren’t as quick to promote this cause, however, citing a hesitation to have individuals with visible or non-visible injuries operating heavy machinery or in such an impactful environment. However, contractors don’t hold the same opinion, Matte said. He shared the experience of when he had asked an employer what position he would give an individual who had lost both his legs below the knee in an explosion? The answer was simple: crane operator.

“What they got in the way of a disability came from serving our country, so let’s give them a break,” Matte said. In the construction industry, there is admiration for the work the vets have done. “They don’t look at them for their single disability; they look at them for their many abilities.”

The accepting nature extends to all aspects of the program, including age and length of retirement from the CAF. “A man closer to his 60s than his 50s and retired for more than 20 years wanted a change,” Matt said. He did a welding course in Charlottetown and applied to dozens of jobs in the area, but he didn’t receive a whiff of interest. “He contacted us and, two weeks later, he was moving to Edmonton with a car eer.”

There is one requirement and three main questions that Matte and his colleagues ask of every person registered with H2H and looking for a new career. Grade 12 math is required. You can acquire this high school credit in night classes or through online courses. “Then I ask them three questions. Number one: what do you want to do? There are over 60 trades and many opportunities. Number two: where in Canada do you want to do this? Jobs aren’t everywhere and, depending on what they want to do, they may have to move. And number three: when can you be ready?” It really is that easy and inclusive, Matte said.

This program works because the training is paid for so the veterans don’t have to worry about coming up with the funds right away, Matte said. And even though these vets don’t have the skills right away, the employers and crew “Don’t mind because they show up on time, they work hard, and they bring the tray of Tim Hortons coffee.” It isn’t long before these individuals move up the ranks.

“Someone that I bring to them, a vet, is very much a rough diamond. But they understand that if you buff them up and give them the training, in five years they’re going to be a foreman or a general foreman or a manager or a general manager. These people rock,” Matte said.

The testimonials on the H2H website speak to this excite­ment. As Steve Fox, business agent from IBEW Local 105, wrote about hiring a vet, “I was impressed with this vet’s enthusiasm and determination during the qualification process, as well as the manner in which he quickly adapted to the subsequent Level 1 safety training. He is now dispatched to a new health care centre as a first year electrical apprentice, and is very excited about his new car eer.”

Former Corporal Ted Collins CD, a member of the Canadian Armed Forces for 13 years, served in Bosnia during Operation PALLADIUM and was a member of the first tour in Kandahar, Afghanistan. When he found it time to retire, Collins found out about H2H through a friend. He thought it would be a good fit for him.

“I served the Canadian Forces from 1994 to 2007. A week later, I became a boilermaker. I have now begun my travels as a boilermaker as I have taken jobs in Sarnia, Toronto, Pickering, and Kincardine. I look forward to continue my travels and learn new trade skills with the Boilermakers,” wrote Collins on the H2H testimonials page. And there are many more just like this.

“They were committed to serving their country, but they’re ready to move on, and now they’re committed to starting a new career,” Matte said of the veterans registering for H2H and this program wants to be an extended hand ready to help these individuals. “This may be a national program, but there are vets in every town. We want to help them.”