Tapping The Military Pipeline: Empowering Vets Into The Construction Industry
By Catherine Bezman, AGC Houston
While the U.S. construction industry continues to grow at a healthy pace, the challenges to finding qualified skilled workers and filling mid-level positions continue to negatively impact companies. More and more companies, however, have discovered a sound solution to address the shortage problem: They are hiring veterans. "Veterans are naturally suited for jobs in the construction industry," said Mia Garcia, a Marine Corps veteran who served during Operation Iraqi Freedom and is now Program Director for NextOp. "We're here to help middle enlisted veterans transition into great careers that last."
Assisting with that transition into construction has been one of the organization’s focus areas, and as a result, a launching point for a partnership with AGC Houston. Based in Houston, NextOp’s work includes helping veterans polish their resume and translating their military skills into the business realm. The organization has been highly successful in placing veterans in mid-level position in the construction and energy industries.
According to John Boerstler, the former Executive Director of NextOp who co-founded the organization in 2014, “there are approximately 206,000 military service veterans that transition to civilian life annually and 3,500 soldiers come home to Houston every year. Because Texas contains a large number of military bases, there is a huge pool of talent.” Since its launch, NextOp has had great success in its mentoring and career transition programs, placing 2,055 vets in meaningful positions.
Aside from helping veterans with one-on-one mentoring and networking connections to companies, NextOp also partners with the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) to help veterans get credentials necessary to be successful in their civilian careers. Through hosting military hiring events and leading transition-focused workshops on Texas military bases, NextOp helps to connect employers with qualified talent.
A Quality Talent Base
By 2018, NextOp had placed 101 returning veterans in the commercial construction industry. “When I first heard about them, I thought it was a perfect fit for our organization as we have many vets working in our industry,” stated Kim Mason , AGC Houston Director of Safety Services. “We began supporting NextOp, first by donating funds raised at our annual Barbecue Cook-Off in March 2018, and then in July, when we signed a partnership agreement.”
“This partnership solidifies our support of NextOp’s mission in helping to transition veterans,” stated Jerry Nevlud, President/CEO of AGC Houston. “We are pleased that we have members who are great supporters and regularly hire talent through NextOp.” Additionally, the Chapter formed the Veterans in Construction affinity group for active and retired military vets who currently work in the industry.
The training and technical skills that military personnel acquire make them ideal candidates for any number of jobs – project managers, crew leaders, supervisors, heavy equipment operators and/or skilled tradesmen. “Veterans come equipped with the right skills,” stated Steph Drake, Director of NextOp. “It’s important to note that while these veterans may not have any real construction experience, they may have done something in their military careers that absolutely translates into job skills which are relevant for their next phase. Veterans are not only mission-driven but committed to team efforts and are used to a continuously-changing work environment. Infantry personnel, for instance, are typically project managers,” she explained.
“They have a mission; they have specific resources and assets that they train with, and coordinate the movement to various locations, at which they work as a team in a dynamic, high-risk environment to deliver the mission, by a specific time.”
There are, however, military construction specialists who have already acquired training and experience through their service. These service men and women are employed to engineer, build and repair buildings, bridges and foundations, work with building specialists and can also interpret blueprints and drawings. Others, such as heavy equipment operators, help to build airfield roads, dams and buildings.
For Vaughn Construction, finding the right talent through the NextOp program is not only beneficial but reflects one of their core values. “The Vaughn Construction family, since our beginning, has had a large number of armed forces veterans,” stated Rahul Deshmukh, Director of Information Systems. “We have seen that the core values practiced in the armed forces are close to Vaughn’s core values, so the transition into our work environment is timely and predictable. Their experience in team leadership and technology transfers well into the construction industry.”
These veterans are willing to put in the effort and show that they have applicable skills and a great determination to succeed. For hiring companies, the return on the investment (which does not include any cost) is exponentially significant. “NextOp presented us with the opportunity to make the recruitment and hiring process easier,” said Deshmukh.
Juan Carlos Garcia, Sr. Superintendent of Vaughn Construction stated that the firm was impressed with the program from its inception. “The candidates who go through the NextOp screening process save steps in our screening process. We get qualified candidates with good work ethic to fill the open positions,” he said. To date, Vaughn Construction has filled warehouse manager, assistant superintendent, tower crane operator and construction worker positions.
Mia Garcia credits that success to their one-on-one case management style. "Vets are not just a number to us," she said. "We're really looking at what they want to do, and we stay connected to them as a resource long after they've found a job." On average, NextOp places vets in jobs in less than a month, with an 80 percent retention rate.
By nurturing connections with businesses in the construction and energy sectors, the organization recruits, trains and places high performing middle-enlisted veterans into industry careers. “We work with companies in ways that work for them,” stated Drake. “Every company is different and operates differently in the hiring processes. We are proud that there are no fees associated with placing a veteran into a company. NextOp relies on donations from foundations, individuals and corporations that believe in the value of the mission to the veteran, company and surrounding community.”
Transitioning Into Construction
Julian Delgadillo turned to NextOp for resume assistance and counseling after spending 10 years in the Air Force as an aircraft technician, welder and machinist. Having worked as a welder in the private sector, he sought a new career path and found it as Compliance Manager for Construction Career Collaborative (C3), helping contractors maintain their support for C3 principles and requirements.
The new role offered a means to lead projects in a different manner. Accustomed to working in teams, the job functions now place him in a role of self-leadership and monitoring construction companies’ compliance. “It’s important to find a career after serving the military in which they understand your background, your skill set. What makes you you, is very important," he stated.
Ana Stone, another NextOp “recruit ,” was hired by Vaughn Construction as Assistant Superintendent. “I left the Navy after serving in Intelligence and the Navy Police and moved to Houston to attend the University of Houston.” Soon after earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Construction Management, she sought NextOp’s services to review her resume and fine-tune her interview skills.
“I have been with Vaughn Construction for two-and-a-half years now and it’s been a really positive transition,” she affirmed. Supervising the Ben Taub General Hospital expansion and clinic build-outs has been an invaluable experience in developing her career. “The nuances that each jobsite brings are different and offer new challenges.” Besides her studies in construction management, Stone also credits her military experience as being a priceless learning ground for the next stage in her life. “In the military, we worked in teams and I had to write reports and analyze and interpret data. This has been invaluable particularly when communicating with clients and other team members in the field.”
Another UH graduate, Martin Hernandez, found his way into the construction industry after having completed his studies in Supply Chain and Logistics. “I went to NextOp to get help with my resume and did not expect to find a job right away,” he recalled. “I was the President of the Student Veterans of America group and heard about NextOp through that association. As I was about to graduate, I reached out to them for assistance in developing my resume and for recommendations to effectively incorporate my service in the Marine Corps. ”
After submitting his resume, it took only one week to receive a call from NextOp stating that an employer was interested in interviewing him. “I sat down with who is now my current boss at Vaughn and interviewed for a warehouse manager position. He discussed the necessary skills and requirements and it seemed like a great fit.” Hernandez could not believe that he found work just one month shy of graduating from the university.
The work he has pursued has come with many challenges and rewards. “I not only run and manage our warehouse in Houston, but all of the equipment on jobsites across the state, from Beaumont, to Galveston and up to the Dallas and Fort Worth areas. I track all of our heavy equipment, trailers, trucks, tools, PPE and other supplies,” he explained. As part of his ongoing duty, Hernandez also tracks maintenance records on each piece of equipment.
Because he is the first person who is called when equipment is broken, stolen or even broken into, accurate documentation is imperative. In two-and-a-half years, Hernandez has turned the warehouse operations around and made significant improvements. “I’ve completed a 180 degrees transformation in the management of our warehouse and cleaned up a lot of processes that weren’t working,” he added.
A Safety Mindset
Much like the commercial construction industry, safety in the military is an integral part of all activities. Military members use risk management processes and after-action reviews (AARs) to identify and analyze situations to create a safer work environment. During and after missions, debriefing sessions are held to review the mission, identify improvement areas, highlight safety concerns, and create a plan to fix problem areas.
Because of the dangerous nature of their missions, veterans are safety minded,” stated Drake. In Ana Stone’s construction role, coordinating with the hospital staff to manage the work entailed a great amount of safety planning. “Because safety is our number one priority, anything that impacts the patients’ wellbeing is of utmost importance,” she confirmed.
The underlying emphasis on teamwork and safety instill veterans with a heightened sense of duty. Many have managed and maintained millions of dollars’ worth of equipment and led teams – large and small. Hiring a military veteran can offer a solution to fill employment opportunities. The companies that have the best records for retaining veterans also share certain cultural similarities with the military. The most important of these are camaraderie and teamwork, which are ingrained characteristics in the military culture and are vital ingredients for a successful, safe, and efficient job site.
Vets In Construction Connect
“It has been phenomenal and we continue to grow as more veterans learn about NextOp and our AGC’s Vets In Construction forum,” stated Mason. For the past two years the forum has met quarterly, planning networking activities (i.e. Military May Shoot-out and Axe Throwing) and hosting meetings that bring in various veterans organizations to promote and educate vets on the many benefits available to them. “AGC Houston is excited to be the first Chapter to create such a group. We are so proud of the veteran community and just want them to be successful in our industry,” said Mason who has also travelled to the Dallas/Fort Worth area to get those Veterans to engage in the group as well.
“The interesting thing about veterans is that they are their own community. Social media works but I get a lot of calls and emails from veterans who are looking for employment because they were referred by one of our AGC vets. This outreach is working and we’re starting to see measurable results.”