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Second Act: Military veterans join the electrical industry

By Claire Swedberg | Feb 15, 2024
person in front of American flag
Five years after Branson Brown-Smith entered the Marine Corps, completing two tours of duty—one in the Middle East, and one in Okinawa—he was at a crossroads in his life. His military contract was ending, and civilian life offered multiple choices.

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Five years after Branson Brown-Smith entered the Marine Corps, completing two tours of duty—one in the Middle East, and one in Okinawa—he was at a crossroads in his life. His military contract was ending, and civilian life offered multiple choices.

For Brown-Smith, some job inspiration came from his own family; his grandfather was an ironworker and had shown his grandson the world of trade work, including what electricians do. So when the Marine considered his next step, he looked to the electrical trade.

“I was going to go to Tampa, but I had a change of plans and ended up staying out here in California,” Brown-Smith said. 

That’s where he saw a flyer for the Veteran’s Electrical Entry Program (VEEP). He called the number, and changed his life trajectory.

Brown-Smith was one of 200,000 individuals—men and women, officers and enlisted personnel—who come out of the military annually and must consider their new career in civilian life.

In the past year, Mike Kufchak, director of veteran affairs for IBEW Local 11 and head of the Los Angeles VEEP program, has seen four classes (or cohorts) of military personnel and veterans through early training for the electrical industry. The goal is to jump-start the careers of military members transitioning into civilian life. The program teaches the basics necessary to be an electrical worker and a referral into the apprenticeship program where they want to work. The program first rolled out around 2015 and was recently reinvigorated with classroom and virtual work for aspiring electricians.

Industry stakeholders agree that veterans can benefit the industry. For contractors interested in VEEP, the aim is to hire qualified veterans and give them a livelihood, Kufchak said.

Today, VEEP has active training facilities in Alaska and multiple locations in California, as well as an outside lineworker training program in Texas. Early efforts are also boosting the program to other areas. Kufchak is a former Marine, and has worked with retired Lt. Gen. Ronald Bailey, his former boss and now senior vice president of industry development at NECA, to help spread the word and support the program.

Those who attend VEEP programs are offered the first year’s inside electrician curriculum (otherwise offered by the Electrical Training Alliance), including basic safety and electrical training, and three choices as to where they want to land when they complete the program.

“If we cannot fulfill any of those three choices, we then offer a list of IBEW locals who are willing to accept direct entries,” Kufchak explained. Most graduates, so far, have enjoyed entry into their chosen region.

The work may be well suited for those who have been in the armed services.

“Veterans are very adapted to this program because they come from a regimented lifestyle much like the IBEW,” Kufchak said. Any electrician knows they need to adhere to a strict schedule, be at work on time and offer reliability, responsibility, dependability and accountability. “That is second nature for members of the military.”

Kufchak added that “our industry is heavily predicated on safety. It is our goal to send these men and women home every day to their families the same way they showed up on our doorstep every day. That is our responsibility and we take that very, very seriously.” Much like the military, the trade also offers pension and health benefits.

While most VEEP graduates have been men, women are taking advantage as well.

“Women are the hardest demographic for us really to recruit,” Kufchak said, “as they sometimes interpret this career as male-driven. We have women in a variety of roles ranging from apprentice to general foreman to business managers running local unions.”

Alaska and San Diego offer in-­person classes where students learn the basics in seven consecutive weeks before they graduate. Los Angeles has developed a nine-week hybrid program, with the first six weeks conducted in a virtual classroom. The final three weeks take place at the training facility in the City of Commerce, where students do the hands-on portion that includes bending conduit and OSHA-based first aid and CPR training.

Kevin Johnson, training director and CFO for the Electrical Training Institute of San Diego and Imperial Counties, recently graduated his second VEEP cohort, with 11 new alums headed to apprenticeships. Some were still active-duty members finishing up their service, some had just retired and others had been out for a couple of years. (VEEP accepts veterans up to five years out of the service.)

The next VEEP cohort starts in October. While “Safety is our top priority,” Johnson said, trainers want graduates to know enough that they can launch directly into the apprenticeship with core skills to build on.

Los Angeles VEEP cohort graduates, pictured in December 2023, are military veterans preparing for a career in electrical construction. Branson Brown-Smith is pictured third from right.

“I want people to stop saying ‘I wish I heard about this earlier. Maybe I would have chosen this earlier,’” Johnson said.

“We’re offering a great opportunity,” he said, and service members bring benefits to the trade that sometimes may go underappreciated. 

“I want to thank them for choosing us because they’re making us better. They’ve already sacrificed a lot in the military,” Johnson said.

Helmets to Hardhats

Other similar efforts are underway nationwide. Helmets to Hardhats (H2H) is a national, nonprofit program that connects military service members with construction industry jobs. A former soldier and IBEW member himself, executive director Martin Helms heads up the program and travels around the country sharing the organization’s message.

H2H launched in 2003 as a military and veteran recruitment program targeting transitioning service members and reservists to get them interested in the building trades.

The program has guided nearly 44,000 individuals into new jobs, and Helms is one.

“I’m a product of the program in 2005, so it’s near and dear to my heart,” Helms said.

Anyone transitioning to the civilian sector must make a mental and personal shift.

“You go from a world knowing that someone has your back and cares about you, who holds you 100% accountable and gives you high expectations, to a world where you get to fend for yourself,” he said.

H2H works with the Department of Defense and those going through the transitioning process as active duty members and reservists exit duty. It uses job fairs, social media and other venues to meet people.

“Truthfully, there’s not one standing platform that works, so it’s ever changing,” he said. Reaching out to service members requires a multipronged approach that is always evolving. 

In the past, face-to-face interaction was the only real way to present the sales pitch. But “now you have social media. You have Zoom, you have these different transition courses that have popped up, so there’s so many ways to make the connection, clear down to just plain old marketing and advertisement in different magazines,” said Helms, as well as billboards and video production.

Easing the transition

Leaving the service is a time of hard choices for many of these individuals.

“A lot of transitioning military and service members don’t even know how lucrative the building trades can be as an occupation,” Helms said.

As many as 80% of service members change their minds about their job plans within 24 months of active duty. That takes them to Plan B. That’s the point at which H2H often finds new members for the construction trades.

Electrical and other construction work can be a natural fit, he said. “It’s a muscle memory for them—[the military and construction] are really similar in how they operate.” Service members understand the culture, he said.

Opportunities for contractors

When it comes to electrical contractors, Helms noted that many simply don’t know they can use H2H’s services, including its job board that’s tailored to the construction and military communities.

The jobs and applicants include all management levels and expertise. Numerous retiring officers, for example, have bachelor’s degrees and are seeking positions in project management, estimating, engineering, warehouse management and even HR and office positions.

By late 2023, Brown-Smith completed the VEEP program just a matter of weeks after leaving the Marine Corps in October. He now works at Los Angeles International Airport pulling overhead data cable, installing conduit, pulling wire and preparing the space for further overhead work.

His transition from the Marine Corps to active electrical work at the airport was fast and seamless.

“It’s an extremely smooth transition—the structure of the union is almost identical to the structure of the Marine Corps,” he said.

Discipline is key, and that’s where Brown-Smith has an advantage with his military background. He has the ability to ask questions and stay engaged, which is something trainers and employers seem to have appreciated. 

“Everybody is more than willing to drop whatever they’re doing and teach you something,” he said.

With the support of VEEP training, Brown-Smith said he came to his workplace with enough familiarity with the basics, such as bending conduit, that he was ready to begin working. After five years in the service, where he had become a mentor to newer recruits, he now finds himself in a position to learn from others again. 

“It was a great transition for me from a teacher to the student again,” he said.

The job’s paycheck and benefits assures him he’s come into the right industry.

“This is the greatest decision I have made as far as career or work,” Brown-Smith said. 

When it comes to his advice to others coming out of the service, his advice is simple: “Call up Mike [Kufchak].”

stock.adobe.com / Mykhail Shvets / Marty’s Art; BRanson brown-smith

 

About The Author

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at [email protected].

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