When Evan M. Wilson was honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy in 2013, the native of Pennsauken, New Jersey, thought he had the world at his fingertips, thanks to his experience as an aircraft logistics specialist.

But the transition to civilian life proved complicated. In his mid-20s, with a young son to support and another on the way, Wilson needed better income than he’d once earned with sporadic construction jobs. Like most veterans, however, he lacked both a college degree and the recent work experience many employers seek.

Wilson’s lucky break came when his best friend tipped him off to apprenticeships offered through Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 in Philadelphia, a union that partners with the nonprofit organization Helmets to Hardhats to fast-track veterans into construction careers.

“All I needed to do was provide all my credentials from the military,” said Wilson, who in 2015 began his four-year paid apprenticeship with Air Concepts, an air-conditioning contractor in Bristol. “I just knew I had the discipline from the Navy to catch on quickly, and I was good with my hands, which really helps.” As a full-fledged journeyman sheet metal worker, Wilson can eventually expect to earn an annual salary in the neighborhood of $100,000 with solid union benefits – precisely the kind of stable, middle-class career that so often eludes U.S. military veterans.

Connecting vets like Wilson with those hard-to-find jobs is a cause that has steadily gathered momentum over the past 15 years, both in Pennsylvania and nationally. The employment landscape has long been “a complicated and challenging place” for the state’s 364,000 working-age ex-service members, said Joan Nissley, communications director for the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

But even as veteran-friendly industries like manufacturing have declined, other opportunities have presented themselves, giving rise to a crop of public and private initiatives to ensure that military vets, including those who are disabled, take full advantage.

The building trades, for instance, are actively seeking to replace a retiring generation of skilled laborers. Aided by groups like Helmets to Hardhats – which has placed more than 22,000 ex-service members in jobs over the past decade – Pennsylvania’s powerful unions are recruiting veterans to fill plum spots in carpentry, electrical, and sheet metal work, as well as in related hands-on fields like transportation.

“Around 2002, there was a huge push to understand where skilled labor was going to come from, where we were going to get the next workforce,” noted Darrell Roberts, the executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Helmets to Hardhats. One logical answer: workers discharged from the military, who are accustomed to physical labor and eager to “earn while they learn,” as Roberts put it.

While about 10 percent of Helmets to Hardhats registrants aim for managerial roles, “these apprenticeships are our bread and butter, and where the majority of our vets want to go,” said Roberts.

His own career makes a good case: Having learned welding and sheet metal skills in the Navy, Roberts joined Local 19 while continuing to serve the Pennsylvania Army National Guard and eventually was hired as the state’s first program director for Helmets to Hardhats. Along the way, he was deployed to Kosovo, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business – and became an example of how skilled labor can build not only houses, but also serious careers.

Darrell Roberts – photo provided

“The opportunities are boundless; it’s what you want to do and where you want to take it,” said Roberts. That’s true to some extent – but it’s also undeniable that government programs play a critical role by subsidizing trainees, incentivizing veteran hiring and bringing employers and workers together through placement offices, websites and job fairs. Since the early 2000s, there have been stepped-up efforts at both the state and federal level to reintegrate vets into the workforce, making success stories like Roberts’s far more likely.

Trainees like Wilson, for instance, pay their rent with housing stipends thanks to the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which expanded the traditional college-tuition benefit to include financial support for on-the-job apprenticeships. And the Vow to Hire Heroes Act of 2011, which was recently renewed, offers tax credits for employers who hire ex-service members, along with increased funding for training in high-demand specialties like machine operation or heating and ventilation.

In Pennsylvania, state policy has long favored veterans for hiring and promotion in government jobs; soon that preference will likely expand to the private sector as a result of the Pennsylvania Startups for Soldiers Act, which passed both houses of the state Legislature this fall and is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf.

“We all owe a debt of gratitude to those veterans who fought for our nation,” explained state Sen. Randy Vulakovich, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, and a champion of the bill. (The committee’s minority chairman, Democratic Sen. Jay Costa, declined to comment.) “A veteran is likely to possess courage, constancy, habits of obedience and fidelity – valuable qualifications that translate to the private sector.”

Employers are evidently persuaded. Even with the ongoing erosion of manufacturing jobs, veteran unemployment declined significantly in recent years and is actually slightly lower than that of the overall population, both statewide and nationally. Only 4 percent of ex-military workers were jobless in September 2016 – a nearly 50 percent decline from five years ago, when double-digit rates inspired the Vow To Hire Heroes Act. And while Pennsylvania’s median income was $28,000 in 2014, the last year for which figures are available, veterans did much better, bringing home about $33,000.

None of this surprises Mark Pinkasavage, who oversees apprentice training for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 743 in Reading. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, when we’ve hired a vet, they’ve worked out well,” said Pinkasavage, who served in the Air Force and counts roughly nine ex-service members among 65 IBEW apprentices.

Ernest J. Menold, who routinely employs veterans at his eponymous third-generation sheet metal business, prizes the maturity that accompanies military experience. “I find that the vets who come in, compared to their counterparts of similar age, have more sense of responsibility,” said Menold, who co-chairs the Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee for Philadelphia-area sheet metal contractors. “Some of them even come in with job skills. We owe it to them to find them employment.”

Gary Masino, Local 19’s president, said the union tries to recruit a half-dozen apprentices each year from the military to join its 4,300 workers throughout Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey. Regardless of experience, “we find that the apprentices that come to us through Helmets to Hardhats bring a real work ethic,” explained Joseph Frick, the training coordinator for Local 19, where the average ex-military apprentice is about 25. “They follow orders and directions well. And that’s half the battle – getting people to show up on time every day.”

Requirements and pay vary, but even starting apprentice pay is often higher than the low-wage service jobs many non-college-educated men might otherwise take. “Most of us take a pay cut to come into the local, but we know at the end of our apprenticeship it’ll pay off,” explained Wilson, who draws on his G.I. Bill benefits to fill the gap.

New hires at Local 19 start at 40 percent of the journeyman wage, with a 5 percent raise every six months. At IBEW Local 743, the $12.17 starting hourly wage rises to $34.77 by the end of the five-year apprentice program, with health and pension benefits paid by the employer – “and at zero cost to the taxpayer,” Pinkasavage pointed out.

Still other unions recruit for apprenticeships run through employers like SEPTA, which offers VA-approved programs to train overhead linemen and signal maintainers. George Bannon, who organizes SEPTA apprenticeships as business agent for Transport Workers Union Local 234 in Philadelphia, said veterans are attractive to many industries not only for their leadership qualities, but also for transferable skills, like driving large vehicles. “It’s just the environment that’s different, trains as opposed to an active combat zone,” explained Bannon, who served in the Marine Corps. “But the veteran has a lot of resolve. He’s willing to learn, take risks.”

Bannon’s use of the masculine pronoun is no accident. Ninety-four percent of Pennsylvania veterans are male; apprenticeships reflect that reality, with female representation in the low single digits (though employers and union trainers “are actively trying to recruit more women,” said Roberts, a sentiment echoed by his peers). Julie Fernández, a 22-year Air Force veteran who counsels ex-military job seekers at the Montgomery County PA CareerLink office, speculated that women are likely to focus on family rather than career after discharge.

And popular fields for ex-military personnel skew heavily male. Nancy Dischinat, executive director for the Lehigh Valley Workforce Development Board, said a majority of veterans find work in manufacturing, transportation, construction, logistics and technical occupations. The mechanical bent of many ex-service members has inspired large technology companies, like Microsoft and Amazon, to create special military recruitment tracks.

But outside of the big cities, Pennsylvania is still better known for fading factories than tech startups, and Fernández said rural veterans face an uphill climb to land middle-class jobs. “Geography can really work against them,” she noted. “When we get to East Greenville, up in that area, when the factories closed, that’s it for those folks. They have to start coming south to find employment.” Fernández said her office was recently flooded with veterans laid off from the Quad/Graphics factory in Atglen and the Harrisburg plant of Bimbo Bakeries, both of which recently shuttered.

The uncertain employment landscape is why ex-military job seekers get prioritized, one-on-one employment assistance from specially trained counselors like Fernández at the state’s 61 PA CareerLink job centers, and from the state’s Disabled Veterans Outreach Program, which works with CareerLink to employ special-needs vets. “We have always made veterans a priority, and we will continue to do that,” said Sara Goulet, the communications director at the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, which administers PA CareerLink.

“We’re a big state, we have a diverse economy and a lot of industry. There are areas where factories are closing, but there are also areas where we hear the need for a pipeline for skilled labor because a generation is retiring.”

To get that pipeline flowing, PA CareerLink cultivates close ties with area employers. Fernández recently heard from FedEx about a soon-to-open facility in Conshohocken, where the shipping giant is hiring operations managers, packers and drivers. Meanwhile, Goulet hopes local vets laid off from coal mining jobs will find work at the petrochemicals plant Shell Royal Dutch is building in Beaver County. And companies with strong local roots – like Pittston-based Benco Dental, an 86-year-old dental distributor – have long been known for hiring veterans.

Judy Harvey – photo provided

Judy Harvey of Kingston is one of 100 veterans employed by Benco nationally – and when she was hired last year, she beat the odds for a 50-year-old job seeker in this economically struggling region. But the Wilkes-Barre CareerLink office knew Benco favored military personnel and placed Harvey in customer service at the Pittston headquarters, where employees in the military reserves receive paid leave for annual training. “Being from a small town in Northeast Pennsylvania, traveling around the world with the Navy, and then returning to my same hometown, was very rewarding,” Harvey said.

While most veterans, like Harvey, hope their skills will transfer to a good civilian job, a few are looking for a fresh start – as Roberts discovered when a recent Navy discharge approached Helmets to Hardhats about an elevator apprenticeship. “He’d operated a bulldozer and small cranes in Afghanistan and Iraq,” recalled Roberts. “This person had a lot of training and was really proficient. He had a lot of the skills you’re looking for.”

But the veteran declined to pursue lucrative construction work, even though his new choice of field required starting from square one. “He was really adamant,” said Roberts with a chuckle. “He never wanted to operate a bulldozer again.”