Piling Canada

Life After Service

Two Canadian organizations are connecting the country's veterans with valuable career opportunities, helping to fill the skills gap in the construction industry
Written by Rebecca Henderson
January 2021

Two Canadian organizations are connecting the country’s veterans with valuable career opportunities, helping to fill the skills gap in the construction industry

Every year, 5,000 Canadians leave the military and transition back into civilian life. For many military personnel, it’s a transition that can feel – at times – daunting.

“There are many transitional skillsets that you possess, but you don’t know how to market them. You grew up in a world within the forces where it’s all based on team, it’s all about we: ‘We’ll do this.’ ‘We did this.’” said David Blackburn, director of military employment services at Prospect Human Services in Alberta. “Then you exit the forces and you need to shift your mind from this ‘we’ mentality to an individual mentality and focus on promoting yourself and your skillset. For a lot of people coming out of the military, that is counter-intuitive.”

For over 50 years, Prospect has helped Second World War and Korean War veterans connect to the community and the workforce. However, in 2011, Lt.-Gen. Romeo Dallaire illuminated Prospect to the critical gaps in their services, like military personnel who struggle to transition back to civilian life.

“We realized that nobody was helping transitioning military members make that adjustment,” said Blackburn. “The other piece of it was that employers weren’t aware that there was a highly skilled demographic coming out of the forces.”

Prospect created Forces@WORK to support members of the Canadian Forces and veterans in successfully transitioning to suitable civilian employment and to ensure that they will be able to maintain the quality of life attained in their military careers.

“You’re part of Canada’s defence team, you wear the Canadian flag on your shoulder, you wear a uniform and you wear it with pride,” said Blackburn. “So, you’ve got this great sense of purpose. And then you leave the forces, whether it’s a planned or an unplanned exit, you’re starting over, and you’re starting in midlife, and that that can be a real challenge.”

Blackburn joined Prospect to manage the Forces@Work program. He had spent 25 years as a senior officer within the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and recognizes the impact leaving can have – whether it’s after a career in the military or due to a medical release. In 1997, Blackburn injured his lower back and neck after the armoured vehicle he was a passenger in rolled over in Petawawa, Ont.

“For me, identifying my path forward was a real struggle,” he said. “Who am I now?”

Transitioning back into civilian life has its own unique set of challenges and adjustments, says Blackburn. For example, after leaving the CAF, Blackburn had no idea what a wage-earning adult might make in 2011. So, he reached out to Forces@Work.

“I said, ‘Hey, I’m having some issues. I need some help.’” Simple things like how to negotiate an hourly wage with an employer.

Prospect also has a psychologist on staff that helps across all of their programs. These services are available to a broad range of the military family, including ill and injured members, reservists, retiring regular Forces members, veterans, priority spouses or families dealing with a medical release, and spouses and youth of regular Forces members. 

However, what makes the program stand out from others and remains one of its key components is its retention support services.

“With our Forces@Work program, once a person is placed into employment, we keep in contact with the client every seven, 30, 60, 90 and 190 days to make sure that that individual is continuing to be successful,” Blackburn said.

He cites one example of a veteran who took a role as a shipper and receiver. At certain times, that individual would get up and walk away from his workstation.

“By all accounts, the employer was happy with the veteran,” said Blackburn. “The employer reached out to the Prospect Employment Placement Specialist who worked with that client, telling them, ‘We like the work, but there’s something amiss.’”

It turned out that three days a week at 11 a.m., a truck would back up to the loading dock and drop its tailgate, triggering flashbacks to events the veteran witnessed in Afghanistan. So, he would go for a walk to clear his mind. According to Blackburn, the Forces@Work client didn’t know how to address this with his employer.

“We were able to bring the two of them together, talk it through and we ended up relocating the veteran to the reception and dispatch desk,” said Blackburn. “It was a quieter spot with a door so he could continue to work.”

Another organization that helps veterans transition back to civilian employment is Helmets to Hardhats Canada. The program’s national director and founder, Joseph Maloney, recognized the advantages for both military personnel and labour unions back in 2003 after working as the Secretary-Treasurer for the Canadian Office of the Building and Construction Trades Department in Washington, D.C.

“There was a severe skill shortage in the United States,” said Maloney. “We looked at several different demographics, and then I thought, ‘Well, there’s a huge military over here that people leave every year, why wouldn’t we tap into that?’ So we did, and we started programming the United States in 2003, which is still in operation today.”

Maloney brought Helmets to Hardhats to Canada in 2012, as a response to Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan and the need for quality careers for the military who wanted to transition to civilian life. However, Maloney says, despite the innovative programming, he encountered a few complications and hesitations along the way.

“In the United States, there are about 240,000 people who leave the military each year. In Canada, 5,000 people leave the military each year. So, the pool diminishes quite significantly.”

Other factors that had hindered the program’s immediate success included a lack of government and military support. However, both of those came when then Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced his support of the program.

“The federal government gave us a little seed money to help us build our website,” said Maloney. “Soon, the Ontario, the Alberta, and the New Brunswick governments kicked in some money, which got us started. Since then, we’ve been funded primarily by the construction industry, where many of the unions and employers allocate us funds on our contribution through a collective agreement.”

According to Maloney, construction workers and contractors are all very, very supportive of the Canadian military. “They respect our troops and they support them. Many construction workers are to this day active reservists.

“When an employer has a veteran within the company, they know that this individual can show up in the morning, be working in a team environment, take orders and think for themselves.”

To date, Helmets to Hardhats has placed about 1,050 veterans into various trades across the country. Maloney says Helmets to Hardhats also has expansion plans to move into the automotive industry.

“We know there is serious demand out there in many of the provinces’ industries and we know that veterans are available. So, we want to make sure they’re aware of it. This isn’t a job opportunity. It’s a second career.”

While Helmets to Hardhats serves veterans nationally, Forces@Work currently serves Alberta, with ambitions to expand into Western Canada, and eventually into some of the eastern provinces. Funding and donations remain integral to that mission.

Forces@Work is a charitable organization and takes donations, just go to our webpage at www.prospectnow.ca,” said Blackburn. “It’s one of the ways we continue helping Canada’s military family succeed.”  🍁

Category: Business

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