Despite the promises by companies such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot to hire more veterans, unemployment among the ex-military remains high — especially among those most likely to have served since the 2001 terrorist attacks. Among veterans age 18 to 24, the unemployment rate in February was 36.2 percent — the most recent figures available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For nonveterans the same age, the unemployment rate was 15.3 percent.

While programs such as Helmets to Hardhats, which matches veterans to civilian construction careers, have helped, lots of vets remain unaware of its benefits, officials say.

“Although veterans have proven work experience, dedication and discipline, they have a higher unemployment rate than the everyday person off the street in the same age group,” said Larry Lawrence, a regional field representative and instructional development specialist for the International Training Institute, which is funded by SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (formerly the Sheet Metal Workers union) and the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ National Association. “That doesn’t make sense to me. People with this military training and an honorable discharge should be able to work, and the sheet metal unions in Pennsylvania are making this happen as long as the work is there.”

Union officials in the Keystone State are fast-tracking apprentice program applicants who come through the Helmets to Hardhats program. A nonveteran can wait up to 18 months to be accepted.

“We accept the honorable discharge and say we want that kind of candidate,” said Aldo Zambetti, coordinator at the Local 19 training center in Philadelphia. “I am the human resources department. I can have the résumé and see if someone has HVAC experience or construction experience and put them to work as long as it’s available.”

Pennsylvania veterans interested in all facets of sheet metal work can skip the interview and application test and enroll right away. Once they learn some skills, they can work if a job is available. 

Darrell Roberts, the executive director for Helmets to Hardhats, said Pennsylvania’s program is special.

“Direct entry is a great item. It’s a great boon. It’s not unique, but it is rare,” he said.

“It’s something we’ve been pushing across the United States with all the trades. You have to educate people that they can make a career out of being a sheet metal worker,” Roberts said. “The goal of Helmets to Hardhats is to show there are real quality careers in construction, and we’ll help you with that transition. We try to get the stumbling blocks out of the way.”

Before joining Helmets to Hardhats, Roberts was a union sheet metal worker who served in the U.S. Navy and the National Guard.

Zambetti said the applicants who come through the program are some of the union’s best workers.

“We’ve always had a great experience with Helmets to Hardhats apprentices,” Zambetti said. “I’ve not seen one dropout. I’ve never seen one person fail to graduate to be a journeyperson. I see the Helmets to Hardhats vets in their first five years at their positions, and they are holding higher-level jobs, and I think it’s because of their military training.”

SMART Local 40 in Connecticut also has had good experiences with the apprentices sent there by Helmets to Hardhats. Since 2007, 100 workers there have entered the construction industry through the program.

The economy dropped those figures, but with a rebound under way, Local 40 business manager David Roche would like to see more veterans come through the program.

“They have a work ethic,” Roche said. “They’re used to taking direction, getting up early and going to work every day. They pay attention. They catch on quicker and they seem to excel through the program and afterwards.

Some of our best workers came through the military, he added.

In Connecticut, unions have been able to get language inserted into project labor agreements calling for a percentage of the workers to be veterans.

“We’re putting it in every one of our PLAs,” Roche said. “It’s helping the guys who deserve a job when they come back, and we’re getting quality workers. It’s a win-win for us all around.”

Roberts agreed. 

“On one hand, you’re really helping the service member,” Roberts said. “On the other hand, you’re helping the workers and contractors because you’re bringing on good workers. It’s good for everyone involved.

“If you’ve served in the Guard or active duty, you’ve served,” he added. “You’ve served us. We don’t turn them away.”