Soldiers transitioning out of the Army can face a degree of uncertainty about future career endeavors – and the means necessary to get started on a path in the civilian sector. Members of the Soldier for Life – Transition Assistance Program, formerly the Army Career Alumni Program, work closely with these Soldiers to help the planning process go as smoothly as possible. Simultaneously, they work with educational and employment programs in the private sector, looking to find organizations eager to provide a leg-up to transitioning Veterans.
Sometimes, these partnerships yield phenomenal opportunities for transitioning Soldiers – as is the case with The United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting industry of the United States and Canada (commonly known as the UA). This multi-craft union is now offering transitioning Soldiers the opportunity to receive 18 weeks of condensed training in the field of welding. The program, called Veterans in Piping, is being offered at no cost to participating Soldiers – and guarantees a union apprenticeship upon completion of the course.
The VIP program – which is already in place at some military installations across the country – recently began its first 18-week training session at Fort Campbell. While there is already a generated level of interest, Teresa K. English, Career Skills Program coordinator at the Sgt. Glenn H. English Jr. Army Education Center, wants to spread the word about VIP to as many Soldiers as possible.
“What we’re trying to do is reach as many Soldiers as we can and let them know about it,” she said. “This is huge. These Soldiers are paying nothing out of pocket, and they’re not using their GI Bill. The union is saying ‘Thank you’ to the Soldiers for their service. The goal is to get these Soldiers employed when they get out so they’re not having to draw unemployment.” According to English, the pilot program – currently underway – was originally intended for 10 Soldiers only.
“For this first class, we had 33 apply,” she said. “Only 10 were supposed to get in, but the union reps were so impressed with the quality of the interviews, they agreed to let 18 come in. From here on out we will have 20 in each class.”
Soldiers chosen to participate in the training program will spend four days a week in Building 6096 on Angels Road – where 20 specialized welding booths have been set up to provide thorough and interactive instruction.
“The hands-on training is great,” said English. “They’re in the shop 10 hours a day. And in that 18 weeks, they rack up a lot of job hours.”
At the helm of the program are instructors Barry Richardson and Michael Smith – each members of a union chapter in Paducah, Ky.
“I was a teacher at my apprenticeship school in Paducah,” said Smith. “I enjoy teaching people how to weld, so when I got the opportunity to teach the Soldiers, I just felt like I’d be giving something back.”
According to the instructors, the arrangement is mutually beneficial. Transitioning Soldiers gain peace of mind in knowing that a guaranteed paying job is waiting for them at the end of their military careers. The UA gains a crop of skilled workers whose military careers have acclimated them to hard work and self-discipline.
“I just think it’s a win-win for the military and for the union,” said Smith. “We need welders. The Army needs a place for Soldiers transitioning out, so it’s a good fit.”
“And this is more than just giving them a job,” said Richardson. “They’re training for a career. Welding has been around for a very long time, and it’s not going anywhere.”
Acting as a type of liaison between the union and the Soldiers of Fort Campbell is Capt. Jamie Fortune, who provides information to interested parties at a weekly briefing at the Education Center.
“When everybody first heard about it [VIP], they were saying ‘What’s the catch?’” she said. “And there isn’t one. There’s nothing to pay, and they don’t have to sign a contract. Any questions they’ve had, we’ve brought to the union. There’s no catch.”
In addition to the weekly briefings, Fortune spends time at the VIP facility, gauging the progress of Fort Campbell’s first crop of students.
“The instructors say that some of the Soldiers are well above where they expected them to be at this point, and the ones who aren’t are right behind them,” she said. “They expect every one of them to graduate successfully.”
“The Soldiers are doing great,” agreed English. “Every time I go in there, they’re really excited about what they’re doing. The instructors say they have to tell them sometimes to sit down and take a break.”
Many of the students – including Sgt. Brian Briggs, 49th Explosive Ordnance Disposal company – are jealous because there is a great deal to learn.
“I thought it was going to be a lot easier, but it’s a pretty difficult job,” said Briggs. “It’s an awesome program, and I love it so far. But it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be.”
Briggs discovered the VIP program while conducting his own research on career opportunities for transitioning Soldiers. While unsure of the exact path, he knew that he wanted to go union when he became part of the private sector. He filled out his application and put his best face forward at the interview. When he got his acceptance call, he was beyond ecstatic.
“When Capt. Fortune called me, I’m pretty sure I screamed into the phone and blew out her eardrum,” he laughed.
At the program’s completion, Briggs plans to move his Family back to his native California – where he will have a job waiting upon his arrival.
“That’s another big plus for getting into the program,” he said. “You can basically go wherever you want after you graduate. I’ve already gotten in contact with the local union out there, and they’re already waiting for me.”
“Even though there’s often waiting lists at local unions, our Soldiers are going to move to the front of the line and they will be guaranteed a job,” said English. “The union is definitely giving them the gold star treatment.”
With another class scheduled to begin in May, Fortune encourages transitioning Soldiers to attend the weekly VIP briefing, held Thursdays at 10 a.m. at the Education Center, room 242.
“We tell them all about the program – what they can expect and what will be expected of them,” she said.
For questions about applying to the VIP program at Fort Campbell, they are encouraged to contact Fortune at (270) 798-0223 or Tramayne Meeks at (270) 798-0315.
And to Soldiers who will soon transition out of the Army, Briggs offered a final piece of advice: do your research.
“Take advantage of all the opportunities the military is giving you,” he said. “Go to all of your ACAP classes. Nobody’s going to just hand you anything – you’ve got to stay motivated and do it for yourself.”
by Heather Clark, Courier staff