A Natural Fit

After leaving the Army, Theresa Shackelford contacted Helmets to Hardhats and landed an apprenticeship in the elevator trade.
After leaving the Army, Theresa Shackelford contacted Helmets to Hardhats and landed an apprenticeship in the elevator trade. (Matthew Grard)
By Christina Ianzito
Sunday, April 13, 2008

IT'S 6 A.M. ON A TYPICAL WORKDAY, AND THERESA SHACKELFORD has shown up at the job site, a half-finished office building in Reston. Wearing a bright-yellow hard hat, jeans and steel-toe work boots, she's here to help the head mechanic replace the brake on one of the elevator motors. The project will take almost five hours, because, she says, "we have to take the entire thing apart, put it all back together and then test it." Then it's on to the next job.

After six years in the Army, Shackelford, 35, is finishing the first year of a four-year apprenticeship with the International Union of Elevator Constructors, Local No. 10, in Lanham. The apprenticeship includes this full-time job with Otis Elevator Co., which takes her all over Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland, and four hours of classes one night a week. It's a rigorous education, often tiring and sometimes humbling: "Helpers," as apprentices such as Shackelford are called, have to be able to take orders. "We do that a lot," says Shackelford, with a shy laugh. But she loves the work. "It's physically challenging, but it's also intellectually challenging."

Shackelford was matched with the apprenticeship through a union-sponsored, government-funded program called Helmets to Hardhats, a small, five-year-old nonprofit that works to transition exiting service members to the construction trades. It's a natural fit, proponents say, because so much of success in both fields involves following orders, good learning skills and self-discipline. Shackelford's supervisor at Otis, Michael Wilton, says he sees an enormous difference between his workers with military backgrounds and "kids just out of high school who haven't lived on their own yet and are still out partying. They come in hung over all the time, if they show up at all." Not so with Shackelford, who hasn't missed a day.

Last year, more than 18,000 current or former service members registered online with Helmets, which is linked through the unions with 85,000 contractors across the country. At least 1,550 have ended up in construction apprenticeships, which range from two to five years and include trades such as bricklaying, plumbing and carpentry. (Helmets also runs a Wounded Warriors job-assistance program for disabled veterans.) The organization, headquartered in Washington, has 13 regional representatives, who contact the job seekers and guide them through the application process. The rep who got in touch with Shackelford was Richie Eckler, a Vietnam vet who has spent 36 years in the elevator trade. Based in Boston, Eckler says he talks to 10 to 15 candidates every day. Some call from several times zones away in Afghanistan or Iraq. "They call me at 3 in the morning," he laughs. "They just don't understand."

But new or soon-to-be veterans deserve this attention, Eckler says, adding that he'd have appreciated such career guidance 40 years ago: "When I got out of the service in 1969, they just said, 'Eckler, you gonna re-up?' There was no transitional assistance."

LAST SPRING, SHACKELFORD WAS AN ARMY SERGEANT, on her way out after a long stint in Washington as a signal support specialist. In search of her next step, she discovered Helmets to Hardhats at her base's career office, called up its Web site and read descriptions of careers in 15 unionized construction trades. She posted a profile, noting an interest in elevator mechanics -- she says she liked the challenge of it -- and heard from Eckler almost immediately. "She wanted to work with her hands; she wanted to use her head," says Eckler. "She was a perfect fit." Within a week, she had an interview with the coordinator of the training program in Lanham, and she began the apprenticeship last June. For several months, she received weekly calls from Eckler, she says, to "check on me to make sure everything was going good."

Shackelford's starting pay -- "earn while you learn," as they say around here -- is $20 an hour: nice, if not quite as high as the $45,000 or so a year she was making when she left the Army. But her income will increase each year of the apprenticeship, until she becomes a journeywoman in September 2011, when she'll earn about $54 an hour, or at least $100,000 a year. Single and splitting her time between homes in Washington and Baltimore, she already receives vacation and sick pay, retirement benefits and medical insurance.

Former Marine Lance Cpl. Stephen Collins, 24, started an apprenticeship last summer at the Steamfitters Local 602 Mechanical Trade School in Landover. After three infantry tours in Iraq, Collins worked a year in a nonunion heating and air conditioning job until an uncle steered him toward the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters.

The union sent him to the Land-over school, whose training director, Ron O'Bier, told Collins about Helmets to Hardhats. Applying through Helmets allowed Collins to bypass much of the application process, which typically begins in January for a start the following September. Collins showed up in August, O'Bier says, and "we popped him in a week before classes started."

And, because he had some experience, Collins, who had made less than $25,000 a year in the service, was able to start as a second-year apprentice. As part of his training, he has a job with a Rockville-based mechanical contractor and attends classes two nights a week and all day on some Saturdays. He makes nearly $19 an hour, plus health insurance -- along with the promise of an annual salary of about $85,000 when he graduates from the five-year apprenticeship program in 2011 as a journeyman steamfitter.

Collins, who lives in Frederick and is engaged to be married in the fall, acknowledges that if it weren't for Helmets to Hardhats, "I wouldn't have gotten in yet. They get a lot of people that apply for that job."

This past January, the Steamfitters' apprenticeship program drew 880 applicants for about 150 positions. "We always save some slots for Helmets to Hardhats guys," says O'Bier, a former yeoman in the Navy. "We love them all."

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