Our Community Matters series is a grassroots approach to supporting those who support the nation—the communities that feed America, build America, and protect America. Our first story highlight is on a nationwide nonprofit, Helmets to Hardhats, that connects military service members like Dylan Ciryak with skilled training and quality career opportunities in the construction industry through the union. According to Dylan, if it weren't for Helmets to Hardhats, he "would probably still be trying to figure out life and what the heck this all means."
Overqualified and underpaid—these are the career obstacles many service members face after leaving the armed forces. Despite their advanced training and discipline, only one out of every four service members has a job when transitioning back to civilian life. The main culprit is that much like Dylan Ciryak who joined the United States Navy at 19 years old and served for four years before returning home, many released service members do not have the four-year degree, certifications, or licenses required to get a private sector job that matches their skillset. Because instead of going to a four-year university following high school, they served their country.
Dylan went on his first deployment into the Middle East when he was 19. Overseas, he worked on aircraft carrier subs and shipping containers. His duties, which consisted of getting to base at two in the morning, included ensuring the weapons systems were ready, checking the engine compartments, and assuring the boat could continue the mission. “That was my first real experience after high school. Being thrown into such an important position, from protecting people to infrastructure, having that kind of weight on my shoulders at 19 years old to the end of my deployment is a lot.” Regardless of Dylan’s qualifications—the knowledge he gained in combat school, the hands-on technical skills he developed, the massive responsibility he faced daily—after military, like 53% of other U.S. veterans, Dylan was left out of work or with lower-wage jobs that he was drastically overqualified for. “The next thing you know, I’m hopping from odd job to odd job trying to figure out my way in life.”
Dylan went from “making a lot of money on deployments to making little to nothing when I got out,” he told us. And he is not alone. Nearly 200,000 service members transition back into civilian life a year and more than half of them struggle to find work due to lack of resources, no four-year degree, and underemployment caused by serving in the military instead of building their resume with a curated list of college internships.
“Once I met my wife, the odd jobs were no longer working out,” Dylan told us. “The bills were adding up and the under the table pay wasn’t sustainable.” While higher education resources exist, many require veterans to be in school full-time, making it difficult to financially support themselves and a family. “I needed to make a change. I remembered hearing about Helmets to Hardhats in TAP (Transitional Assistance Program). I got in contact with them and within two weeks, I was working with my hands again, surrounded by blue collar folks and like-minded people that aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. A place where teamwork is essential.”
Helmets to Hardhats is a nationwide earn-as-you-learn nonprofit program that connects transitioning service members with skilled training and quality career opportunities in the construction industry through the union. Their construction industry partners offer tuition-free apprenticeship programs with more than 1,600 U.S. training centers. “Helmets to Hardhats serves as the bridge between somebody who is transitioning out of the military with the career that is there for them,” said Nick Weathers, Helmets to Hardhats Northwest Regional Manager and U.S. Veteran. Not only that, but they are the only program that responded to Dylan’s inquiry for career assistance. “And they were on top of their stuff, from the time they answered the phone to the time I had tools in my hands two weeks later,” Dylan said.
When Nick asked Dylan which trade he wanted to enter, Dylan said he “felt like a kid in a candy shop.” After consulting with family and friends, Dylan joined the sheet metal apprenticeship. “There’s a lot of satisfaction I get out of this job,” Nick told us, “because we help a lot of people. Dylan’s on his way to a fantastic career, which happens quite a bit. Just on a personal level, this job is very fulfilling.”
Nick agreed that it can be challenging to translate the skills used and learned in the military world into civilian life but stated that “the trades are a good option for military people because of their soft skills—skills that people in the combat arms take for granted: discipline, reliability, the ability to take orders and carry them out, physically working outside during harsh climates and early hours. These are the skills people in the military must excel at. They are also the skills required to be successful in the construction industry. It’s a natural transition.”
The transition from military to construction is mutually beneficial. Adam Hooper, sheet metal superintendent and Dylan’s direct supervisor tells us that if it wasn’t for Helmets to Hardhats, he “wouldn’t have an avenue to our veterans. And any opportunity I get to pick up quality people like our veterans, I’ll take it all day long because I know I’m getting guys like Dylan.”
When Dylan started the program, he and his wife lived in a 700-square foot one-bedroom apartment with no furniture aside from a T.V. placed on top of a box, they had one car with a leaky sunroof, and nothing else to their name. “Fast forward three years now, I have a house, two dogs, and a baby on the way,” Dylan told us. “Helmets to Hardhats is the best choice I ever made as a civilian.”