| VIP student Bill Gaertner poses with his wife and daughter at a luncheon to honor the inaugural class of UA’s VIP accelerated welding program.
The American veteran faces one of the toughest job markets in decades. Despite high-level training, their military experience often doesn't translate into highly skilled civilian jobs. Veterans frequently find themselves stuck in dead-end work with little hope for advancement; others re-enlist just to make ends meet. Even more can't find work; the unemployment rate for veterans is three times higher than the national average.
There is no reason for this situation while the American job market is starved for skilled welders. Even with the current economy, welding-oriented companies continue to search tirelessly for skilled welders who are reliable and committed.
As a solution to both of these problems, the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry (UA) launched its first ever UA Veterans in Piping (VIP) accelerated welding training program. Based out of UA Local Union 26's training center in Lacey, Wash., this pilot program trained and certified 16 returning veterans in the welding skills needed to meet union standards. With the help of the State of Washington, local educators, equipment suppliers and partner contractors, the first VIP class is proving to be a success.
"This is the right thing to do," says UA General President William P. Hite. "It's a win-win situation for all of us. These young people come back, they get great jobs, they get careers, and we get these wonderful recruits to help us with the demand for skilled labor." In October, Hite announced that a second VIP class at Local 26 would begin in February 2009.
Mike Arndt, UA director of training, adds that, "The VIP program should set an example for other industries. It's important that we help veterans exit the service and enter training programs that lead to careers in the skill trades. These veterans are good people that work together and without conflict. They show up on time and are a really good, committed group."
Inspired Plan Helps Reintroduce Veterans to Civilian Workforce
Hite conceived of and initiated the VIP program after observing other attempts to utilize the skills of veterans. He envisioned a program for the UA where returning veterans would receive valuable counseling, receive training before entering into apprenticeships (to give them a leg up on finding work) and where the skilled trade organization would become the interface with the government and with private employers.
UA Local 26 was the ideal pilot location for the VIP accelerated welding program. Located within its jurisdiction in western Washington state are seven military establishments, including Fort Lewis, a major exit point for servicemen and women returning from active duty. The program consists of a two week orientation designed to transition veterans into the civilian workforce and then 16 weeks of intense welding training. Upon completion of the 18-week course and two UA certifications, each student is offered direct placement into a four-year apprenticeship program with a regional contractor.
Judae Bost'n, coordinator of business management training at Bates Technical College in Tacoma, conducts the two-week course that opens the VIP program.
"Veterans' culture, their language, how they operate and how they process information is defined by the military," she says. "The only trouble is, when you drop them into the civilian world, that doesn't work. Even though veterans have everything an employer wants (discipline, motivation) they have two things that get in their way: they have a hard time 'getting out of their lane' (assigned duties within a team) and they have a hard time having their own internal schedule because everything has been externally scheduled for them. If we spend two weeks of psychological training upfront, we can knock down a lot of the barriers that have gotten in the way of veterans succeeding in the workplace."
Bost'n's program teaches veterans that the teamwork, discipline and motivation they have been taught by the military is important to retain, but rediscovering the individual and recognizing personal strengths and weaknesses will make them a better worker and employee.
"The transition phase helped us interact with each other and developed us mentally to transition from the military to the civilian world," says Joseph Witt, an Army veteran who served in Germany, Bosnia and Iraq. "Judea broke us down, just like a drill sergeant, and then built us back up. We're able to use the same values we learned in the military - loyalty, duty, respect, self-of-service, integrity, honor and personal courage - and apply that to the workforce we are training for right now. "
"On the first day, I was thinking this is a bunch of psycho-babble," says Bill Gaertner, a 17-year veteran of the Army, Navy and National Guard who has served on every continent. "Once we got three days into it, I started to understand what it was actually doing. It was teaching us to be more honest with ourselves and to understand the way things work in the civilian world. After two weeks, you could see the change in everybody in the class. It was designed to tear down the barriers that we had already set up ourselves. Once you tear down those barriers, you will be more successful in everything you do, from work to family and relationships."
Part of tearing down those barriers includes understanding the civilian workforce isn't as intense as military life, but if you apply yourself and pursue something you find interesting, you can be successful. Jacob Otten, a veteran of the Army National Guard who served in Kuwait, is a perfect example of taking a practical skill from the military and translating it to civilian life. He worked on aircraft structural repair in Kuwait and didn't want to return to a job as a building engineer's assistant where all he did was replace light bulbs and perform menial maintenance tasks.
"I need something where I'm always doing something," says Otten. "I can't just be sitting around waiting for someone to call and say 'hey, change a light bulb.' Metal is my passion. I like being able to take something and manipulate it in a way where I can create something completely new."
Specialized Training Gears Veterans for Success
On the final day of Bost'n's class the veterans are introduced to their instructors for the accelerated welding program: Mike Stull and George Glassman. Both Stulll and Glassman are Vietnam veterans themselves and have 41 and 35 years of experience in the UA, respectively.
"I was excited about this as soon as they told me about it," says Stull. "I've got a chance to help veterans. We're very fortunate to have this pilot program here at Local 26."
Stulll and Glassman work together to teach the students the finer points of each welding process and how it applies to pipe welding. Each student must pass two UA certifications (UA 21 and UA 41) and the Local 26 bend test by the end of the 16-week welding course. Contractors drawing on labor from Local 26 and Local 32 are invited in throughout the training process to meet the students and to gauge their progress. Once the UA certifications have been earned, each member is offered direct entry into a 4-year apprenticeship program with a local contractor where they begin to earn steady wages and benefits, such as insurance and a 401k plan.
The program is designed to give its students the specific skill sets required to be a successful pipe welder. While welding courses at technical schools or community colleges are adequate, students like Enrique Rosano are thankful for the specialized training offered by VIP.
"I went to a [local technical] school and noticed that they just gave you some rods and said 'here you go, you paid for this class, so you can get out of it what you want'," recalls Rosano, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq. "When I came here, the VIP program geared training toward welding pipe. All I ever welded in that other class was a little block. Mike and George came in here and taught different tricks and procedures that will make us successful pipe welders."
Students find VIP Invaluable
Welding was never something many of these students aspired to out of high school. A few of them had dabbled in it here and there, either on a farm or in school, but didn't know the intense skill required to meet pipe welding standards. And while many of the students never gave welding any serious consideration before, they now see it as a superior alternative to much of what is available on today's job market.
"I was in a dead end job with no opportunity for advancement," says Gaertner. "I need to provide for my wife and my daughter. That is my primary concern."
Kenneth Duvall, Army veteran (Iraq, Korea, Afghanistan, Thailand and Japan), VIP student and father of two, says, "I was getting ready to go back into the military because I didn't see any opportunities out there. When I heard about this program, I was skeptical at first because I had heard about so many 'miracle' programs, but when I got here, I found that the VIP program exceeded anything I could have ever asked for."
"Other industries should take a really hard look at this because there is no reason that this can't be done in other fields," adds Duvall. "Why not train veterans to become your guys? Not only are you helping people, but you are helping yourself. You're going to get quality because you're going to train quality - the quality of a military veteran."
Many of the VIP students enrolled to gain entrance into a career with good wages, job stability and future advancement. Many, however, are finding that welding is more than means to an end.
"I really like welding," says John Scherer, a four year veteran of the U.S. Army who served in Iraq. "I like seeing actual, physical results. There is no question of 'what did I accomplish today?' because it's right there in front of you."
"As long as that hood is down, it's just me and the metal," adds Duvall. "It's almost like peace. Like everything else is blocked out. It's like meditation time."
"I appreciate the UA for doing this because they are not required to do this," says Scherer. "I recommend this program because it's a practical way of helping vets. It's good for the union, and it's good for the vets."
Inaugural VIP Class a Success
The typical completion rate for an accelerated welding program like this with civilian students is 50 percent. The pilot VIP accelerated welding program at Local 26 graduated 100 percent. The results speak for themselves.
The VIP program is funded through the UA's International Training Fund, which is made possible by member donations. Its success has also been made possible through the help of private companies and government agencies. Manufacturers like Miller Electric Mfg. Co. have donated equipment and welding supplies. The state of Washington passed legislation that allowed veterans and others to quit dead-end jobs and draw unemployment while they undertook a training program - such as the VIP program - that lead to an apprenticeship. Agencies such as the Workforce Investment Act and the Department of Veteran Affairs have also contributed to its success.
VIP is gaining attention for its value nationwide. Other UA branches are now planning similar programs, and Washington Governor Chris Gregoire recently saluted the program at a luncheon honoring the pilot program at Local 26.
"We are a country that needs our infrastructure to be built and rebuilt," said Governor Gregoire, "and we need the workforce of today and tomorrow to make that possible. This is the beginning of that opportunity, not just here in Washington State, but around the country."
The opportunity is beneficial to both the veterans and the contractors. Returning veterans are taught an in-demand trade that helps them support their families and improve their lives. Contractors are given new employees who are naturally disciplined and motivated who know how to balance teamwork with individual forethought and initiative. Everyone wins.
| Mike Arndt, UA director of training and Anne St. Eloi, UA special representative.
"These young people come out of a situation," explains Arndt, "where they are taught brotherhood and sisterhood in the military, to count on one another, and they come into a situation where we preach brotherhood and sisterhood. Where we all work for each other to make sure that our families, our friends' families and our members' families get the type of living that every working person in this country deserves."
UA Local 26 VIP Accelerated Welding Program Inaugural Class
Boe Bishop, US Army (E4)
Kenneth R. Duvall, US Army and US Army Reserve (E5)
Bill Gaertner, US Navy, US Army, and Washington National Guard (E5)
Steven Hartlieb, US Army (E5)
Brian Haskan, US Army (E6)
Theresa "TJ" James, US Army and US Army Reserves (E4)
Jacob R. Otten, US Army (E4)
Tyler E Parenteau, US Air Force (E5)
Enrique Rosano, US Army (E5)
John Scherer, US Army (E5)
John Quincy Skinner, US Army and National Guard (E5)
Rob Stevenson, US Air Force (E5)
Brandon Andre Thomas, US Army (E5)
Eric J. Werth, US Army and National Guard (E4)
Angelo B. Williams, US Army Staff Sergeant (E6)
Joseph "Joe" Witt, US Army (E5)
For more information on the UA Veterans in Piping (VIP) program, please visit www.uavip.org or www.millerwelds.com
Sidebar Story: VIP Program Helps Veterans Live the American Dream
In a tough American economy where many veterans only find work that allows them to live paycheck-to-paycheck, the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry's (UA) Veterans in Piping (VIP) accelerated welding program is giving its veteran students more than a career. It's giving them hope and stability for the future.
"I was in a dead-end job with no opportunity for advancement," says Bill Gaertner, who served 17 years in the Army, Navy and National Guard. "I need to provide for my wife and my daughter. That is my primary concern. The house we're living in is way too small and my wife wants another child. This program will give me the long term career stability to carry me and my family much farther than anything else that I do."
"I'm tired of living in apartments," adds Enrique Rosano, an Army veteran. "I would love to take a vacation. I would love to own a house and couldn't even think about doing that with the jobs I had when I got out of the military. I was paying bills and that was it. 'Savings' didn't even exist in my vocabulary. What drives me in this program is that one day I'll be able to enjoy myself and enjoy life more than just stressing about it all the time."
"For me it's all about my family," says Kenenth Duvall, an army veteran and father of two. "Everything I do from this point on is for them. I want my two kids to have it better than I have it. If my children want to go to college, I want to be able to provide that without mortgaging the house. As long as my family is comfortable, then that's the dream for me."
For others, like John Scherer, a four-year veteran of the Army, the VIP program is providing a career opportunity that will allow him to explore new possibilities and interests that may have seemed like a pipe dream before.
"I want to have a hobby farm in five or ten years," he says. "I've got a lot of things on my mind but I'm thinking about bison - it's a growing industry. We figure on having three families pooling money to buy the land. And even if things don't go well, I still have my day job as a journeyman."