When Ross Bowlin started his service with the Marines in 2001, just days out of high school, he must have known that his life would, in many ways, never be the same. But there was no way to predict what lie ahead.
The 9/11 attacks took place while he was in boot camp. Bowlin, who ran security detail and convoy security, was shipped to Iraq with the 1st Combat Engineer Battalion for the invasion in 2003 and during the 2004 battles of Falluja.
By the time he left the service in 2006 while in his early 20s, he had the kind of life experience few his age could even imagine. Unfortunately, he also was re-entering a civilian world that was turning the corner toward a major recession -- another battle there was no way to predict.
"I worked for a civil service company for a couple of years and then after that, in 2008, I got laid off and was on unemployment, working for my father-in-law, just trying to scrape by once the economy went bad," said Bowlin, who has a wife and four children.
Finally, a friend and fellow Marine told Bowlin about a program called Helmets to Hardhats that helps veterans gain apprenticeships in the construction trades. Bowlin decided to give it a try and eventually found himself enrolled in an apprenticeship program with Teamsters Union Local 166 out of Bloomington, Calif.
"To be honest I was almost trying anything at that point. I joined the Marine Corps when I was 18, left for boot camp three weeks after high school, so during normal college time I was overseas and serving in the Marine Corps so I was, you know, almost a step behind or whatnot," Bowlin said.
"I turned to Helmets to Hardhats and they immediately started sending me to some job fairs and are the ones who got me eventually linked up with the Teamsters, the union that I'm a part of."
The apprenticeship started up in the fall of 2010. Bowlin had no experience driving a truck or heavy equipment, but spent about four months in an intensive program learning how to operate machinery such as big rigs, rock trucks, water trucks and water pulls. Then, in January of last year, he started a paid, on-the-job apprenticeship with Bechtel Corp. at a new solar thermal power facility called the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, under construction about 50 miles northwest of Needles, Calif., and just five miles from the California-Nevada border.
In a few months, Bowlin, who is 29, will take his final step in the apprenticeship program by receiving a journeyman's license, the official end to his training. This will mean an increase in pay and allow him to apply for construction jobs across the country.
"I can't say where I would be today (without Helmets to Hardhats) but they set me up on the path, they connected me with the people I needed to, and I believe, even if it hadn't worked with the Teamsters, they would have kept helping me to get me placed somewhere, to get me back on my feet," Bowlin said.
Helmets to Hardhats (H2H) was established in 2003 and is administered by a nonprofit organization called the Center for Military Recruitment, Assessment and Veterans Employment. Most of the program's funding comes from federal grants, although that money has been diminishing because of recent budget cuts. However, employers, unions and private foundations also contribute to the program.
While Helmets to Hardhats does offer employment services, its major purpose is to link veterans of all eras and all military services, including the National Guard and Reserves, to training programs in the construction trades, according to Helmets to Hardhats' Robert Schwartz , who works as the wounded warrior program coordinator for the program. The idea is to get veterans into paid apprenticeship programs, which usually last three to five years, so they can eventually obtain their journeyman's license and build a career in the construction field.
There are 15 unions that partner with Helmets to Hardhats covering trades such as boilermaker, sheet metal worker, ironworker, cement mason, electrician, and heat and frost insulator. Within these trades are different subsets so there are more than 80 different specialized crafts, Schwartz said.
Helmets to Hardhats works with the trades to expedite the process of obtaining an apprenticeship for its veterans. Some union locals, for example, may only offer apprenticeships a couple times a year or have residency requirements that exclude those who haven't lived in the area for a certain amount of time. But in partnering with H2H, they may wave the residency requirements for veterans who, for example, have been overseas, or set aside a certain amount of openings in their training programs for H2H candidates.
"Now let's say I'm deployed and I'm coming back and it's like, well, Rob, you just missed our application period but we can take your application because you were deployed, and we know that if you were here you would've gotten it in on time," Schwartz said.
"The trades do what they can, and they all do different things. It's not blanketed like every trade does this or every local does this; they do what they can," he said.
Schwartz points out that veterans still have to go through the normal interview process like any other apprentice candidate, and some of the unions have aptitude testing to see, for example, if a candidate has the math skills to succeed in a specific job such as electrician.
"We essentially make that link. I cannot make the trades hire you. All I can do is I can put you in front of the people that you need to be in front of," he said.
While it's difficult to track how many candidates have gone on to establish new careers in the construction industry because of Helmets to Hardhats, there were 1,056 placements confirmed for 2009, and 869 confirmed for 2010, Schwartz said. Over the past two years, 88 of the veterans placed have been at least 30 percent disabled, he added.
In an economy with more opportunities, he estimates the yearly total of placement would rise to about 2,000.
The apprenticeship programs require both classroom work and paid on-the-job training. Since the programs are accredited and federally recognized, veterans are able to use G.I. Bill or state, National Guard or Reserve educational funding benefits.
In some cases the apprenticeships are connected with a local college so that by the time someone is finished, they have both the journeyman's status and an associate degree, according to Rick Johnson, president of the Southern Nevada Building and Construction Trades Council. This is true for many of the local trade unions, which are connected to the College of Southern Nevada, he said.
"The great thing about apprenticeships, like I say, you earn while you learn. Not only are you going to school and it's being paid for, they're making an investment in you, and meanwhile you're also working for that employer so you have money coming in, and then usually once you establish yourself you have benefits, you have health and welfare, you have a pension program," Johnson said.
Johnson notes that the pay rate for new, first-year apprentices averages about $15 an hour, but once someone has their journeyman's license, rates can average $20 to $50 an hour depending on the trade.
He notes that while the local industry was hit hard when the construction boom came to a halt, it is gradually starting to pick up, including federal projects such as the new air-traffic tower at McCarran International Airport, projects at Creech and Nellis Air Force bases, and the Veterans Administration medical center site in North Las Vegas. There are also clean-energy projects in California as the state works to meet its renewable-energy standards.
"I know in Southern California alone there's four solar plants that are on the books right now to go," he said.
But once someone has a journeyman's license, the benefit is that they can follow the work no matter where it is.
"So what's kind of nice, too, is as long as you're willing to travel, or if their work slows down, you do have other opportunities throughout the United States," Johnson said.
Of course there is also the benefit of the military experience the candidates bring to the table, which can be priceless to the companies that hire them.
Bob Regalado, Bechtel Corp.'s labor relations representative at the Ivanpah project, notes that Bechtel has formal agreements with some of the trade unions in Southern California to support the H2H program and its apprenticeships. He said the H2H workers Bechtel has hired for the Ivanpah project such as Bowlin tend to be able to think and work independently, and show "responsibility and accountability" beyond the norm.
"They volunteer and are proactive in trying to find new opportunities to develop their skill sets, they're curious about things that are beyond their Teamster focus, and that initiative is very helpful to have out here," he said.
Representatives of BrightSource Energy Inc., the developer of the solar project that currently has more than 1,000 workers at the construction site, agree.
"The Ivanpah project has gained truly first-rate construction workers through the Helmets to Hardhats program. These plants create thousands of good, family-wage paying construction jobs and we're looking forward to incorporating the Helmets to Hardhats program into our future projects," said Kristin Hunter, BrightSource Energy corporate communication specialist.
Kenneth Platten, a frontline soldier who served a tour in Iraq with the Army's 161st Infantry before leaving the military in 2006, works at the Ivanpah project alongside Bowlin. They both entered the same Teamsters apprenticeship program in 2010.
Because of his wartime experience, Platten is also on a Bechtel rapid-response team at the worksite, providing emergency care such as CPR.
The veteran, who is 30, signed up with Helmets to Hardhats after getting laid off from his job in Washington state, losing his home and finally moving back to his native state of California with his wife and young daughter where he struggled for several months to find work.
He knows the program that turned his life around could do the same for other soldiers who have come back to an uncertain future.
"I think that (Helmets to Hardhats) should be publicized more so that funding can be developed better, because we do have a lot of veterans that are coming out from combat situations ... and they really need to be introduced to a field that they can sink their teeth into outside of the military, and I think Helmets to Hardhats really lays down a path for that. My family's very grateful for Helmets to Hardhats."
Those who want to learn more about Helmets to Hardhats or get started with the program can go to helmetstohardhats.org.