Helps Veterans Build Their Second Career
By Tina Costanza
If you want to know just how passionate Joe Maloney is about Helmets to Hardhats, all you have to do is listen to him. It comes through in his voice.
“I just find it very, very rewarding to be able to help these veterans when they decide they’re going to transition,” says Maloney, the founder and national executive director of Helmets to Hardhats.
The organization, a registered not-for-profit, helps active reservists and veterans transition from military service into well-paid, highly skilled second careers in construction and related industries. The program offers the apprenticeship training needed to achieve journeyperson status in construction industry trades, as well as help with creating a resume and employment counselling.
About six months ago, Helmets to Hardhats embarked on a national expansion called Pathways to Post Military Employment. Its focus is on Ontario, where many work opportunities are available, and it’s being extended to non-bargaining union apprenticeship systems for contractors that have a need for administrative staff, planners, schedulers and security.
“Sometimes a veteran will tell us, ‘I’m getting out, but I don’t want to be a construction worker.’ Their training in the military was in administration or logistics or scheduling or planning. Construction employers require all those categories, besides their tradespeople,” explains Maloney. “We’ve expanded the program to allow our registered employers to post those types of opportunities.”
Maloney adds the program is doing quite well, with the help of Veterans Affairs Canada, the Ontario government, and the unionized construction sector in Canada.
It’s free for veterans and employers to register with Helmets for Hardhats, which they can do on helmetstohardhats.ca. The website, which is updated regularly, includes the newest job opportunities and links to its job bank to connect career seekers and employers.
Hundreds of employers have registered with the organization, along with every construction union, Maloney says. On any given day, there are about 300 veterans seeking an opportunity in the construction industry.
The program is working. Employers have been happy with the veterans they have hired.
“They just rave about them,” says Maloney. “They say, ‘it’s amazing. Thank you, that was a quality person.’ We’ve received no complaints whatsoever.”
Perhaps the positive feedback should come as no surprise. Most veterans have some form of construction-related experience, says Maloney. They’re also equipped with skills gained from their military experience that serve them well in the trades: dedication, loyalty, leadership, teamwork, communication and a solid work ethic.
Tom B., a veteran, is proof.
“The Helmets to Hardhats program helped me to find a great civilian career as a training co-ordinator in the trades,” he told Helmets to Hardhats. “My new employer values my skill set and background, coming from a career as an Armoured Officer in the Regular Force.”
Helping those who are homeless
The Pathways to Post Military Employment program is also reaching out to homeless veterans.
“It’s a very sad state of affairs in Canada that there’s a very high percentage of homeless veterans in the homeless community,” says Maloney. “Some of these individuals may have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) issues, some of them may have addiction issues, and some of them may have just fallen on bad luck. We want to make sure homeless veterans are aware of our program, they have access to it, and we’re there to help them along.”
Helmets to Hardhats began a pilot in Toronto, with Good Shepherd Ministries. The shelter would identify a homeless veteran in its facility, and assist him or her until the individual is placed into housing. Once the veteran is housed, he or she is referred to Helmets to Hardhats, and the organization will work to get him or her into one of the various construction trades.
And if a veteran is living with PTSD or another disability, he or she is still welcome to register with Helmets to Hardhats.
“There’s lots of opportunities in the construction industry that don’t require that much physical capability, depending on the occupation or trade you’re looking for,” explains Maloney. “We do not turn away disabled veterans and even if you’ve been discharged medically, and you have PTSD, that’s fine. We work with that.”
Maloney says veterans are encouraged to disclose any issues they have to potential employers, because assistance might be available to them.
All veterans registered with Helmets to Hardhats have been honourably discharged, and have been verified as serving or former military.
Filling a skills gap
Maloney’s background includes working in Washington as the Secretary-Treasurer of the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL–CIO (BCTD). Back in the late 1990s-early 2000s, there was a huge shortage of skilled tradespeople in the U.S., and the industry no longer knew where to find workers. Maloney suggested the military, following the call to youths, women and Indigenous people to consider a career in the trades.
Ultimately, Maloney met with politicians and Helmets to Hardhats was born in the U.S. in 2003. It’s still running there today. Helmets to Hardhats Canada was established in 2012, upon Maloney’s return to the country.
Helmets to Hardhats faced a few challenges in its early days: making people aware of the program, garnering support, and obtaining funding. Help came from the federal government, and the governments of Ontario and Alberta, each of whom provided $150,000 in seed money. The Government of New Brunswick provided $50,000. Other supporters also made contributions, such as TC Energy (formerly TransCanada Pipelines), which contributed $1 million.
As much as this funding helped get the program up and running, “we had to look for long-term sustainable funding to keep the program going on an annual basis,” Maloney says. “That’s where the unions started kicking in a penny per hour in construction agreements, so that’s where the primary funding comes now.”
More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a problem. In-person seminars had to be cancelled, but questions that are asked a lot in the seminars have been posted on helmetstohardhats.ca instead, along with answers.
“When COVID came in, the construction industry got shut down. That certainly raised a major concern with us,” Maloney says. “Now the construction industry is pretty well back up and running, so we’re back in operation pretty good.”
People power behind the organization
To date, and based on veterans who have reported back to the organization, Helmets to Hardhats has placed just over 1,000 veterans in construction industry opportunities. “On average, we place a veteran in a construction industry opportunity every three days nationwide,” says Maloney.
Helmets to Hardhats in Canada employs four full-time staff, who are governed by a board of directors (with the exception of Maloney). The employees are former military who understand the transition to civilian life.
The organization’s leaders meet regularly with the various building trades, employers, training and education centres and government stakeholders to ensure veterans have a voice at the table within the construction sectors, including ship building and repair, nuclear and utility industries, petro-chemical, chemical, pulp and paper, and oil and gas sectors.
Helmets to Hardhats also regularly presents at base Second Career Assistance Network (SCAN) Seminars and meets regularly with Canada’s 14 building trade unions and their locals, making the hiring of veterans a priority.
“For what these men and women have done for us, for giving us the country that we have, protecting us and our democracies and freedoms, to me it’s just the right thing to be doing,” Maloney says.