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September 2021

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Opportunities Aplenty for Texas Vets

Austin, Texas, Local 520 organizer Marc Pendleton has a rock-solid pitch to troops mustering out of the military.

"You show up on time and are used to getting yelled at," he said. "You've traveled and been in the heat and don't mind it. Y'all make the best damn electricians there are."

And it seems to work. Over the last half decade, Business Manager Ben Brennemen said his local has experienced unprecedented growth — more than 700 new members in 2020 alone.

Again and again, he said, he and his team are bringing in new apprentices from the host of military bases around Austin, including Goodfellow Air Force Base and Forts Mabry, Avery (where Pendleton's wife works), Swift and Hood, one of the largest military bases in the world with more than 50,000 soldiers and civilians on base.

"Marc has been funneling a bunch of people from the military into the apprenticeship," Brennemen said. "For the last few years at least 20% of applicants are veterans, up from less than 10%, and nearly every one is accepted."

For the soldiers who somehow resist the charms of the Texas summers, Pendleton said he's been successful in spinning off interested applicants to organizers closer to their homes.

"I try to get them all to stay here with 520, but I get them all over the country. I sent a guy to Tallahassee last week, Portland before that," he said. "I tell the organizers: for everyone I send over with a bow on, they owe me one in return."

The biggest organizing opportunities are the twice-a-year job fairs flooded by more than 5,000 active-duty and recently retired veterans.

For many veterans, joining the IBEW offers more than just a career that will provide for their families. The bond of the brotherhood and the opportunity to serve through their locals appeals to people who have made a habit of service to ideals.

"Vets like looking after one another and they are sticklers for doing it right and doing it safe," Brennemen said.

More importantly, they know what leadership looks like and right now, people who can run work are both valuable and rare.

"The frontline foreman is the crux position in the IBEW. It is where the rubber hits the road, and most of our apprentices will be expected to take that on immediately after they top out," Brennemen said. "But taking these mixed crews — often filled with newly organized hands at all levels of experience — and making them productive takes leadership skills and seasoning. Our veterans have a head start."

One of the peculiarities of organizing veterans is that one of the major selling points for apprenticeships can often fall on deaf ears: the lack of tuition.

Many veterans mistakenly think that the GI Bill can only be used to pay education costs, which the IBEW doesn't have.

This is incorrect on two fronts.

First, there are expenses that can be covered by the GI Bill, including the couple hundred dollars for books or a few thousand if a potential construction lineman wants to get their commercial driver's license.

More persuasively, however, are the ways GI Bill money can go directly into an apprentice's pocket.

For most soldiers leaving the barracks for possibly the first time since moving out of Mom and Dad's, the GI Bill's rent subsidy can make an enormous difference.

"Everyone is different, but for many folks here in Travis County, the GI Bill will provide up to $2,100 a month for rent in your first year. In Killeen, near Ft. Hood, it's closer to $1,500," Pendleton said.

Each year, the subsidy drops, but, happily, each year apprentices make more.

"By the fifth step that rent subsidy might be close to zero, but that's OK. They put more zeroes at the end of your paycheck by then, too," he said.

It can be even more direct than that said Seventh District Lead Organizer David Galvan.

In some agreements, the GI Bill will make up the difference in wages between an apprentice and a journeyman.

Some of the outside construction apprentices he organized, for example, were bumped up from $25 an hour to a journeyman's $40.

"That is a pretty good incentive to guys who don't mind the outside work," Galvan said. "That GI bill is very versatile and helpful, if you have it available."

Brennemen says the incentives in the GI Bill make the trades an appealing alternative for people who might otherwise have considered going off to college.

"We have so much work in this area that the right people, people with ability to be productive themselves and run work as a team, have the world at their feet," he said. "That's a pretty good place to stand."



Organizers at Austin, Texas, Local 520 have been a fixture at job fairs for transitioning active-duty military members. The opportunity to be a part of a brotherhood and learn for free while earning a paycheck has strong appeal to the job-seeking veterans, they say.