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March 2014

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Helmets to Hardhats Connects Vets with IBEW Careers

Starting a second career isn't easy. And it's even harder for military veterans who have to balance learning new skills and mailing out résumés with the challenges of returning to civilian life, particularly for combat vets like St. Catharines, Ontario, native Steve Krsnik.

An 11-year veteran of the Canadian Army, Master Cpl. Krsnik decided he wanted to spend more time with his new family.

"I was a stay-at-home dad for a while," he said. It was a big change for the 32-year-old Krsnik, who spent his entire adult life in the armed forces, including 18 months with the Princess Patricia Light Infantry in Afghanistan.

His first post-military job was a year-long stint working as a nonunion heavy equipment operator in Alberta. But he didn't like the way the company treated its workers, citing a lack of respect from the boss. So he looked for a career change.

Modeled after the program in the United States, Helmets to Hardhats is a partnership between the building trades and employers offering apprenticeship opportunities for members of the Canadian military.

Launched in 2011, it has also been endorsed by provincial and federal officials who have provided $500,000 in donations. Energy giant TransCanada Corp. also kicked in $1 million.

"Our veterans do so much for us, and from a business standpoint, these are the most skilled workers you can find," TransCanada Corp. Chief Executive Russ Girling said at the program's kick-off event in 2012. "They're skilled, they're disciplined, and we need those workers."

The program comes at the right time for veterans. Canada began winding down its decade-long presence in Afghanistan in 2011, bringing to an end the nation's largest military operation since World War II. More than 39,000 Canadians served in NATO's campaign against the Taliban.

"A lot of guys feel like they've done what they had to do and are looking for new challenges," Krsnik said.

Through Helmets to Hardhats, he was introduced to Hamilton Local 105 Business Manager Lorne Newick, who encouraged Krsnik to apply for an apprenticeship spot.

"Steve came with some pretty good knowledge of operating equipment," Newick said. "I was also impressed with his very positive attitude and his ambition to become an electrician."

Today, Krsnik is a first-year apprentice. "Benefits are great," he said. "And that's a big factor for a lot of my friends who are getting out of the army. They have families to take care of."

Also attractive is the sense of brotherhood he gets from being a member of the IBEW, which reminds him of the camaraderie he experienced in the military. "IBEW members stick by each other and that is really appealing," he said.

In its first 16 months, Helmets to Hardhats has registered more than 1,500 potential applicants and has placed more than 100 into apprenticeship programs in more than a dozen unions.

Executive Director Gregory Matte told the Toronto Star that he expects that number could double or even triple in the next couple years.

"We should have been doing this for years," Newick said. "We need to give our returning vets the tools they need to adjust to the civilian world."

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Hamilton Local 105 member Steve Krsnik spent 11 years in the Canadian Army before getting involved in the electrical trade through the Helmets to Hardhats program.