By Brenda Flanagan
“I was a team leader in Afghanistan, just directing men,” said U.S. Army veteran Wayne Hemingway.
Hemingway spent a year in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, serving with the Second Infantry Division. He gained skills that apply perfectly in his new job, as an apprentice ironworker. Here, students learn to safely climb towering steel girders. Later, he’ll climb skyscrapers.
“You know, having a cohesive unit — and in ironworking you need people to have your back — and that’s essentially what the military is, people have your back. It’s a dangerous job and it’s good to have that camaraderie and cohesion,” Hemingway said.
It took Hemingway four years to find his niche as an ironworker, through a special nonprofit program called H2H — Helmets to Hardhats.
For Talia Pena — an apprentice welder who spent eight years in the Army — job hunting never turned up any hot prospects. She was bartending and unhappy.
“It was very difficult. I applied for everywhere. I was under-qualified because I was overseas for so long. I was over-qualified because they didn’t have the jobs that were available. So I was just trying to get a paycheck,” she said.
She’s now with Ironworkers Local 11 — a first-year apprentice in the H2H program. Her trade’s a hot, physically demanding job that takes stamina.
“The discipline, the dedication that you learn in the military makes you a valuable employee because you’re willing to work hard,” Pena said.
“The building trades jobs are not for everybody. They’re tough, hard jobs. But veterans have the skill sets that they learned in the military that fit into what the building trades do here every day in New Jersey,” said New Jersey Building and Construction Trades Council President William Mullen.
Today labor officials marked the 10-year anniversary of H2H with a $250,000 grant from the state Department of Labor’s NJBuild program.
“Eight hundred people have gone through this program and gotten good-paying, apprenticeship jobs in the construction trades and we know that this additional grant will help to build on that success,” said New Jersey Department of Labor Acting Commissioner Aaron Fichtner.
The $250,000 program will train 60 vets — women and minorities — who will join apprenticeship programs and then hopefully get jobs as journeymen ironworkers, carpenters and more.
And carpenter’s apprentice Bruce Breuer reminds applicants: it’s not for the faint of heart.
“So when your day is hard and you’re lugging 14-foot packs of studs up 13 flights, you just got to keep taking another step,” he said.
“It is challenging. It is very difficult. But it’s very rewarding. You have a career,” Pena said.
To qualify for H2H apprenticeships in 15 affiliated trades, vets must have an honorable discharge, a high school diploma and pass a drug test. But the training program is free.