Skilled and Hardworking Team Players, They’re a Natural Fit for Union Work

By Jessica Zimmer, Contributing Writer

Apprentices and veterans are highly valued in San Francisco’s building trades locals, and some members fall into both categories. November marked Veterans Day, which fell on the 11th, and National Apprenticeship Week, which ran the 15th through the 21st.

Two building trades unions offer particularly robust programs for apprentices and, specifically, for veteran-apprentices and active-duty U.S. military service member-apprentices. Including veterans and service members in the apprenticeship mix has yielded positive results.

Giving Veteran-Apprentices a Jump

Danny Campbell, business agent for the Sheet Metal Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART) union — also known as Sheet Metal Workers Local 104 — said his local offers eight different apprenticeship training programs. Local 104 was one of the first unions to partner with Helmets to Hardhats, a national nonprofit program that matches veterans and active-duty service members with positions in the construction industry.

“Veterans often come to Local 104 through the SMART Heroes program, a seven-week sheet metal and HVAC industry course,” Campbell said.

He explained that the course, which is equivalent to the first year of an apprenticeship, helps service members transition into the civilian workforce while also giving them a jump on training.

“They complete this program before their discharge,” Campbell said. “SMART Heroes lets a participant enter our five-year apprenticeship program as a second-year apprentice.”

Campbell said Local 104 currently has 50 veterans in their apprenticeship programs.

“Contractors have good things to say about veterans, including that they understand teamwork and have the proven ability to learn new skills and concepts,” said Campbell.

Allelea Cabiles, a third-year apprentice with Local 104 who is not a veteran, said the apprenticeship program is valuable for all participants.

“In the initial stages of the pandemic, I went to class on Zoom,” she said. “Now we’re back in-person, following COVID-19 protocols. I found whether we’re online or in the same room, everyone is there to help each other.”

Cabiles said the apprenticeship program builds camaraderie through the bonding that takes places among all participants.

“My advice for a first-year apprentice is to be willing to learn every single day,” she said. “When you show up on time or early and do the job proudly, you’ll come a long way.”

Cabiles said that she’s glad her children, an 8-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter, are witnessing her hard work.

“I get up every day around 3:30 a.m.,” she said. “They know I do it for them. I think my children are inspired by the fact that I am never late.”

Looking Beyond the Job

Dylan Boldt, business agent for Sprinkler Fitters Local 483, said that understanding how to support veterans through apprenticeship programs takes dedication.

“I’m a veteran — a graduate of Helmets to Hardhats — and the chair for the California State Pipe Trade Veterans Association,” Boldt said. “The goal of the association is to mentor veterans who come back. We partner more veterans just exiting military service with veterans who were discharged years ago. That way younger vets can ask questions.”

The association and Local 483 also ensure veterans can access GI benefits and find appropriate medical care through their VA benefits. They teach members how to help out in more subtle ways, too.

“Association members take a class on post-traumatic stress disorder to read people,” Boldt said. “That way we pick up on the thousand-yard stare. We follow up on veterans through the VA on everything from gun safety to mental health services.”

Boldt said it’s proved important to teach veterans who are experiencing stress to take a deep breath.

“We help people see that this is just a job,” he said. “We have to get through today — tomorrow will be there.”

The association further aids unions by encouraging union leaders and veterans to work across political boundaries.

“Politics play a big part in a union,” Boldt said, “yet a veteran may have a ‘whole-country’ view, rather than a San Francisco Bay Area view. We explain how unions can interact well with politicians to achieve common goals.”

Boldt said that breaking down union objectives is critical to holding inclusive conversations.

“When you get people to fall in line and be that soldier again, you re-create that brotherhood and sisterhood that’s in the military,” he said. “Veterans understand the team aspect of a union: When the team succeeds, we all do.”

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