Sixth District International Vice President David J. Ruhmkorff speaks during a ceremony honoring graduates from Madison, Wis., Local 159’s VEEP program.

Courtney Tillman envisioned a life of travel while growing up in northeastern Ohio, especially when she found how much she enjoyed studying foreign languages. She also saw an older sister dealing with college debt, so after graduation, she decided to enlist in the Navy.

Madison, Wis., Local 159 apprentices Jackson Wildes, Courtney Tillman and Jay Droessler [front row] were honored following graduation from the VEEP program.

Twenty-two years later, in 2019, then-Chief Petty Officer Tillman was nearing retirement and looking to begin life as a civilian along with her husband, Christian, and their three children. She wanted to do something with her hands and performed electrical work aboard ships for years.

Tillman found several organizations designed to help veterans make the transition to civilian life but one stood out: the Veterans Electrical Entry Program, commonly called VEEP, designed by the Electrical Training ALLIANCE with substantial support from Milwaukee Tool. That proved especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic, when VEEP continued to support her while she seldom left the ship she was assigned to, Tillman said.

"They walked me through step by step," said Tillman, one of 49 veterans nationwide who have completed the program in its three years of existence. "They were great. They were always there when I had issues or a question about training."

Once accepted, VEEP participants take part in a seven-week pre-apprenticeship program that helps them determine if they are a good fit for the electrical industry. Tillman, who settled in Beloit, Wis., following her discharge, was honored in a ceremony in late June along with two other veterans — Raymond "Jay" Droessler and Jackson Wildes — who also successfully completed the program and now are apprentices at Madison, Wis., Local 159.

The ceremony drew local media attention, with reports by two Madison television stations. Sixth District Vice President David J. Ruhmkorff attended and was joined by Joshua Johnson, the director of the Wisconsin Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards.

"We had our first VEEP candidate come in two years ago and he really set the bar high," Local 159 Business Manager Sue Blue said in reference to Droessler, a retired Army major. "He's been a really good example of how this can be a successful program for a local union and an individual making that transition from the military to private life. We are happy to offer this opportunity and for the three individuals who have chosen our local."

The program also is designed to meet the skilled labor shortage and is supported by the IBEW and the National Electrical Contractors Association.

"Everybody involved is passionate about what we're doing," said the ALLIANCE'S Greg McMurphy, who oversees the VEEP program.

Added Ruhmkorff: "The IBEW has a long history of supporting those who served our country and the VEEP program has only made that stronger. It's taken a lot of work by so many people, but it's paying off. It was a great feeling to celebrate our success in Madison and I look forward to many more celebrations."

Several local unions have participated in the program but Local 159 has become something of a hotbed for several reasons. To begin with, there have been many qualified applicants who wanted to make Wisconsin home after their military careers ended.

Wildes, a retired Marine Corps sergeant, and Droessler both grew up in the state. Tillman grew up near Akron, Ohio, but she and her husband — another military veteran who loves snow, despite growing up Louisiana — thought it would be a good place to raise a family and she had friends in the area.

Local 159 Training Director Jim Cook said the size of the jurisdiction helps, too. It operates nine training centers throughout the state. Milwaukee's 494 is the only other inside local that has its own training center in Wisconsin.

But the most important reason for its growth is that several interested parties — including Cook himself — overcame their initial reservations, he said. For instance, many signatory contractors rely heavily on construction wiremen — commonly called CWs. They are workers who have not been accepted into an apprenticeship but are paid at a lower rate and can complete some lower-level electrical work.

Many contractors were reluctant to give a direct-entry spot to an apprenticeship to anyone, even a veteran, if it came at the expense of a qualified CW who had spent time on a jobsite. Cook said they agreed to give it a try out of respect for the military and when it was assured the ALLIANCE already was vetting the VEEP applicants.

"The IBEW is proud of the VEEP program and justifiably so," Cook said. "But what makes it go really are the NECA contractors willing to give up those spots to a direct-entry program. It's a great feeder program. The best I've ever seen. They are doing electrical work and getting to know if they want to do that as a career."

McMurphy has also seen a change among management regarding the program. He saluted the signatory contractors for doing so.

"People are sometimes averse to change," he said. "They wanted to see what would happen with one person and it worked out.

"Now, they've bought into it. They were willing to work with some changes, accept that perceived risk, and they found out it was really manageable and not much of a risk."

VEEP utilizes resources throughout the brotherhood. Wildes and Droessler, for instance, took part in pre-apprenticeship training in Alaska while still on active duty through Anchorage Local 1547 and the Alaska Joint Apprenticeship and Training Trust.

Tillman, on the other hand, seldom could leave the ship she was assigned to during the pandemic and became one of the first VEEP applicants to take part in virtual training.

"I just hope [my experience] gives the public more knowledge about how to get a career when you leave the military, especially if you don't want to get stuck at a desk," she said. "If you want to get out in the community and do something with your hands, this is a great path to choose."

Wildes has planned to be an electrician for several years. His father is a member of Janesville, Wis., Local 890 and several other family members have worked in the trades. One of his responsibilities while serving in the Marine Corps was performing maintenance on airfield lighting around the world.

"I always thought it would be really cool to understand how all that worked," he said.

VEEP made the transition to that much easier, he said. Instead of being on his own, he had McMurphy and others to mentor him through the process. And, like many veterans, Wildes found many of the skills he learned in the military transferred to construction.

"You're with the same group of people in the military working and grinding every day," he said. "It's very similar to what I'm doing now.

"In the military, some people call it mass punishment. Others say you win as a team, you die as a team. Whatever you call it, you really learn to work well with others. The work is a collective mission to get the job done."

Droessler, who served two tours of duty in Iraq, is honored to have been Local 159's first VEEP graduate but he's also pleased that it's followed up with another graduate in each of the last two years — first Wildes, who was followed by Tillman. He credits VEEP for making it easier to return to his home state and get the apprenticeship application process while on active duty before his discharge.

"When you're working in an insanely hot part of a building and tension is running high, maybe a veteran has the temperament to deal with that," he said. "A bad day as an electrician is 50 times better than a bad day in the military. That stoicism, that get-her-done attitude really helps on a jobsite."