Skilled trades are professions that require a specific set of skills or knowledge. You can obtain these skills through on-the-job training, technical school, or college. Skilled trades provide alternative career routes to occupations that require the standard four years of college education to obtain. There are many different skilled trades available in an array of different fields, but they can generally be broken down into four primary categories:
- Skilled Construction Trades: Construction trade careers range from home labor to management positions. Most construction occupations require a high school diploma/GED, reading/math skills, and some time in an apprenticeship or training program. A few examples of positions in the skilled construction trades include roofers, installers, general contractors, heavy equipment operators, carpenters, insulators, electricians, building inspectors, and plumbers;
- Skilled Industrial Trades: Industrial trade careers generally require more training than construction trades. They typically specialize in one specific area that requires classroom education and/or technical training. Some examples of skilled industrial trades include welders, mechanics, programmers, machinists, locksmiths, fabricators/fitters, and tool-makers/inspectors;
- Skilled Service Trades: Service trades offer some form of specialized assistance/aid. They generally require some form of traditional education or on-the-job training, and certification/licensing. A few examples of skilled service trade occupations include nurses, therapists, cooks, hairdressers, landscapers, and horticulturists;
- Skilled Transportation Trades: Transportation trades are involved with different vehicles such as automobiles, aviation, public transport (trains, busses, etc.), and anywhere a vehicle can be found. These skills are generally formed through on-the-job training programs, and certification/licensing. Some examples of skilled transportation trades include vehicle mechanics, automotive service technicians, vehicle sales, vehicle painters, commercial driving (CDL), and heavy equipment operators.
Transitioning back to a civilian lifestyle can be difficult for veterans — especially when trying to find a new job. After your time in the military, the government offers veterans GI Bill benefits. These benefits help eligible veterans pay for college, graduate school, and attend trade school/training programs — but it can be difficult to understand which route to take. When you are in the military, you often gain specialized technical skills that translate well into a variety of skilled trade occupations. This can help veterans secure paid vocational training programs in several trades so that you can learn for free through the GI Bill while earning pay at the same time.
What veterans choose to do after their service ultimately comes down to personal preference, but the information below is meant to guide veterans on skilled trade options, their intrinsic benefits, resources available, and how to get started towards a vocational career.
Transitioning From Military Service to Civilian Life
As mentioned above, transitioning from military service to a regular 9-to-5 can be challenging for any veteran both emotionally and physically. Veterans are not only shifting into a different occupation, they are also reshaping and learning their entire day-to-day life through this process.
According to a veteran study from the Pew Research Center, those who have experienced a traumatic event, those who were seriously injured, those who were married while serving, those who were serving post-9/11, and those who knew someone that was killed or injured show greater difficulty transitioning into civilian life. Some of the common challenges of transition from military to civilian life include:
- Joining a community: When you move into a military base, the military helps servicemen and their families adjust to the new community. This type of structure is not always in place within civilian life and it can be difficult in both social communities and employment communities. This lack of structure can take a toll on veterans, which can make finding a job and fitting in at a job even more difficult;
- Preparing to enter the workforce: In some cases, veterans may have never looked for a job, applied for a job, interviewed for a job, or worked a civilian job at all. The whole process of applying for and obtaining a job may be entirely foreign to them. Additionally, entering the workforce can be challenging without understanding the resources available for finding jobs like Indeed, Glassdoor, LinkedIn, Craigslist, etc. Creating a resume and determining how military skills translate into different occupational skills can also be a difficult process for veterans. Lastly, most of the time you may have direct work experience, but not the necessary licensing or certifications necessary that other applicants may have, making it harder to obtain employment;
- Returning to a job: If a veteran has worked a job prior to their service, it could take a good amount of time to update/tailor that resume to reflect their new military experience. After 4+ years of being away from the civilian workforce, returning to a job may include a large catch-up period. This could include learning new skills and understanding or adjusting to new social cues and changes within the workplace. Returning to a job that isn’t contracted can also spark job-security worries that can affect veterans and their job effectiveness;
- Creating structure: The military has a very definitive structure and a clear chain of command. This does not always exist within all workplaces. Veterans will have to learn to adapt to work environments with less structure and more ambiguity and this can be challenging/frustrating for many;
- Providing basic needs: The military takes care of basic needs like food, clothing, housing, utilities, and benefits. Civilian jobs do not always provide this type of help. Working a job can be difficult when you need to learn how to balance so many other skills like budgeting and taking care of yourself outside of work. When you are in the military and you need to make choices, there are typically very few options, so the endless amount of options in civilian life can feel overwhelming as well;
- Adjusting to a different lifestyle: In the workplace, employees often clock out at 5 whether their work is completed or not. This can be difficult to adjust to since the military generally has a “do not leave until your mission is completed” mentality. The military puts a large emphasis on camaraderie and teamwork and some work industries are competitive. The cutthroat nature can be confusing and off-putting to veterans. Workplace social cues, industry lingo, and self-efficacy can be extremely foreign to veterans, making it hard to communicate and work together.
It may be useful to talk to a counselor or psychiatrist when transitioning back into civilian life. This change can be difficult and stressful, and you shouldn’t have to do it alone.
Benefits of Working in Skilled Trades
Veterans develop skills that transcribe well into the trades industry. Skilled trades are also at the top of the board for military-friendly job categories. These tradesmen and women are taught to work hard, be respectful, and they generally learn how to work with their hands. If you were trained in a technical role in your time in the military, there is a good chance you have already performed some form of trade work. When you have this hands-on experience, it can put you ahead of others applying for work in the trades, or to attend a trade school.
There are several generalized benefits of working in skilled trades that veterans should consider:
- Reduced cost: The average cost of college and tuition comes out to $25,396 annually, meaning a four-year degree costs over $100,000. This price is based on in-state public institutions; out-of-state students and/or those who attend private schools pay even higher costs. The financial case for trade schools over college is strong since the average cost of vocational school comes out around $33,000 for the entire program;
- Immediate experience: Some individuals struggle in an academic setting or they do not prefer traditional education. Certain trades offer paid apprenticeships that allow for on-the-job education from trained professionals. This allows for individuals to gain experience for their resume without years in the classroom, all while making some form of pay;
- Less time in school: Four years is a long time to be in school for some, but the truth is that, on average, most college students are taking six years to gain a four-year degree. Most vocational schools only take between 6 weeks and two years — much shorter than an undergraduate program;
- Good pay: Although pay varies based on the trade, the state, and the amount of training/experience, the average salary for skilled trades is $78,863 annually with the bottom 25% making over $50,000 and the top 25% making over $100,000. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, this average is much higher than the 2019 average annual wages. When you factor in less money spent on education/training, and less potential for excessive student loans, going into the trades makes even more sense — especially since in 2017, the starting salary for college grads hit an all-time high at $49,785 annually;
- Job security: There are some jobs that just simply cannot be replaced by artificial intelligence (AI), or doing it yourself, and trades fit directly in that category. Things like road/bridges/building construction, plumbing, and welding are examples of trades that cannot always be outsourced. While anything can happen and complete job security is unheard of, trades are generally secure occupations to become a part of;
- Job outlook: The job outlook for future tradespeople is high because while high school graduates line up for college, trade jobs remain open. This has led to a national skilled trade shortage and, as more and more current tradespeople retire, this will remain true. Employment in construction and extraction careers (e.g. carpenters, laborers, electricians, plumbers, roofers, etc.) is expected to grow 4% between 2019 and 2029. This is faster than most occupational growth, and it equates to just under 300,000 new jobs.
Skilled Trade Options for Veterans
The skilled trade that you choose should be based on your interests and your military experiences. For example, if you were a military welder for the army, looking for welding work may be a smart choice. You should also consider skilled and in-demand trade jobs. Below are some examples of popular skilled trades for military veterans:
- Electrician: Electricians are trained to install, maintain, and repair any type of electrical equipment. There are three primary categories of electricians — journeyman, master, and general contractor. The requirements for how to become a journeyman electrician, master electrician, or general contractor electrician vary depending on the state you reside in, but you generally need to graduate from high school, attend a trade/vocational school, apply for an apprenticeship, take a certification exam, and apply for licensing. In the military, you may have done some form of electrical repairs like systems repairs or power distribution that makes you a good candidate for trade school or work in the private sector. It may even eliminate the need to attend a trade/vocational school;
- Mechanic: Mechanics examine, repair, troubleshoot, and maintain a variety of vehicles. As a mechanic, you can specialize in certain types of vehicles like aircrafts, watercrafts, automobiles, trucks, diesels, and heavy equipment/machinery. The steps to becoming a mechanic vary by state, but the general process includes obtaining your high school diploma/GED, completing a vocational program, obtaining a certificate, and receiving employer training. There are a variety of jobs in the military that make you a good fit for becoming a mechanic, some examples including equipment repair and vehicle mechanics (tank, helicopter, automobile, watercraft, etc.).
- Plumber: Plumbers install, troubleshoot, and fix any type of potable water, sewage, and drainage systems. There are three primary levels of plumbing careers — journeyman, master, and general contractor. The requirements for how to become a journeyman plumber, master plumber, or general contractor plumber will vary between states. Veterans may have already learned the basics of plumbing during their time in the military. Additionally, they have developed necessary soft skills like professionalism and communicative skills;
- HVAC: HVAC technicians are trained to install, maintain, and repair heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration systems. Technicians can choose to specialize in one of the systems, or work with all of them. Becoming an HVAC technician starts with a high school education, attending a trade school, and completing an apprenticeship. After that, you need to check the certification requirements in your state. The education necessary for HVAC training is sometimes obtained through military positions like HVAC specialists or utilities repair specialists, and this may help veterans stand out on applications and may eliminate the need to attend a vocational school;
- General Contractor: General contractors are responsible for the day-to-day oversight of construction sites, vendor/trade management, and communication with all parties involved. General contractor requirements vary by state, but the process generally includes obtaining your high school diploma/GED, attending a trade school, gaining experience, taking your exam, and applying for your license. Some of the skills gained through performing military construction jobs can count towards your experience hours, pushing you ahead towards getting licensed;
- Welder: Welders specialize in fabrication that fuses metals and thermoplastics by using high heat to melt the base material. There are different types of welding that you can specialize in — some include MIG welding, TIG welding, stick welding, gas welding, laser welding, and underwater welding. Becoming a welder comprises taking welding courses, earning welding certificates, gaining experience, and applying for certification. Many veterans gain welding experience or even certification, making this an ideal job for those transitioning into civilian life;
- Heavy Equipment Operator: Heavy equipment operators drive or control heavy equipment that is used within engineering and construction projects. This includes equipment like bulldozers, forklifts, backhoes, cranes, cargo trucks, and dump trucks. To become a heavy equipment operator, you need a high school education, heavy equipment courses/training, and a commercial driver’s license. After you have obtained these, you can apply for licensing and certification in your state — the requirements vary between states. In the military, many veterans gain skills with heavy equipment through jobs like quarrying specialists, construction equipment operators, and concrete/asphalt equipment operators that translate well into obtaining your heavy equipment operator credentials;
- Commercial Driver: Commercial drivers have a commercial driver’s license (CDL) that allows them to operate large, heavy, or placarded hazardous material vehicles. There are three tiers of CDLs — Class A, Class B, and Class C, and the requirements and capabilities vary between each. Veterans often already have relevant commercial driving experience through jobs like motor transporting or work as a cargo specialist.
Trade Schools and Licensing
As mentioned above, most skilled trades require attending a trade or vocational school and some form of licensing/certification that usually requires experience and examination. To elaborate, although the process for becoming a general contractor in New York is similar to becoming a general contractor in California, the specific requirements vary ever so slightly between states. These changes include things like the cost (application fees, registration fees, test fees, licensing fees), insurance requirements, bond requirements, testing requirements, fingerprinting/background check requirements, experience requirements, reciprocity agreements between states, and various other minor changes. The bottom line is that it is important to look at schooling and licensing requirements for your state.
Paying for Trade School
Paying for schooling is a pain point for many individuals. Luckily there are resources available for veterans to help fund their schooling. There are four primary routes for paying for your schooling:
- GI Bill: As mentioned above, the GI Bill helps veterans, service members, and qualified family members pay for education. The first step to applying for GI benefits is determining if you are eligible. Next, you want to research different schools you are interested in, then use the GI comparison tool to see what benefits are available for the different schools/trade programs you want to attend. The amount of funding you receive can vary depending on the school, your time in service, and what you want to study. You can apply by mail, in-person at a regional office, or you can get help filing your claim with the help of a professional;
- Scholarships: There are a number of scholarships available exclusively to veterans. You can find veteran scholarships online. Application and qualification requirements for scholarships vary between respective scholarships. The exact awarded amount also varies between scholarships. Generally, you need to apply, provide specific information (personal information, contact information, credentials/proof of time in the military, etc.) If you can pay for your schooling through the GI bill, this can help with things like books, rent, and other costs of living;
- Grants: There are several grants for veterans that help offset the cost of schooling. There are direct educational grants provided by the federal government, private focus groups, state/local governments, and military foundations. Additionally, you can take advantage of veteran housing grants so that you have one less thing to worry about while going through trade schooling and licensing. You can look for grants online and also apply online;
- Loans: If you are unable to take advantage of the GI Bill, scholarships, or grants, or you just need to take out additional money, loans can be used as a last resort. You will need to apply using FAFSA and wait to determine what you are eligible for. In some cases, loan services will offer special aid to military members or family members who have limited interest rates or no interest accrual.
Apprenticeship Programs for Veterans
Apprenticeship programs are proven approaches that help prepare future workers with hands-on learning. Apprenticeships are flexible training opportunities that can be tailored to meet the needs of any business or apprentice. These are considered “learn-while-you-earn” programs. Apprentices receive a base wage when they begin working/learning, then as they meet benchmarks, or learn new skills, they receive pay increases. Once you graduate from an apprenticeship program, you gain a nationally-recognized credential. Below is a list of apprenticeship programs and organizations created specifically for veterans:
- United Association Veterans in Piping: The United Association Veterans in Piping (VIP) program was designed to “equip military service members preparing to leave the service with sought after skills that can lead to lifelong careers in the increasingly in-demand pipe trades.” It is an 18-week accelerated course that is provided for free to veterans and active service members at military bases located all over the country. They have trade focuses on welding, HVAC, and sprinklers;
- Troops to Trades: The Independent Electrical Contractors organization has created a Troops to Trades program to support veterans in adjusting to civilian life. They provide training grants, scholarships, industry information, apprenticeships, and they help connect businesses looking to hire veterans. Their trade focuses are in plumbing, electrical, and HVAC;
- Workshops for Warriors: Workshops for Warriors offers two veteran programs: Welding for Warriors, and Machining for Warriors. The non-profit organization created the program to help veterans and transitioning service members become entry-level welders, and computer numerical controlled (CNC) machinists;
- Helmets to Hardhats: Helmets to Hardhats is a nonprofit program that connects veterans and transitioning active-duty service members with skilled training and career opportunities throughout the construction industry. There are apprenticeship programs, specific career information, and platforms for both career seekers and employers to connect;
- U.S. Department of Labor: The U.S. Department of Labor created a Transition Assistance Program called the VETS Apprenticeship Pilot. The programs help provide counseling and apprenticeship placement services to veterans, transitioning service members, and their spouses. The apprentices get paid while receiving relevant experience, classroom instruction, and a nationally recognized credential.
Employment Assistance for Veterans Starting in Trades
There are several employment-assistance programs for veterans that are starting out in trades. Once you have the necessary training and licensing/certification and you are looking for a job, take advantage of veteran job boards and posting sites — below are a few examples exclusive to veterans:
- Hire Heroes USA;
- Hire Veterans;
If you have never created a resume before, or you are just simply looking for someone to look over it/offer advice, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs created a veterans employment toolkit that is available online to help with this. They also provide information on drafting a cover letter and completing a job application.
Small Business Resources for Vets
When you work in trades, it is common to go out on your own and create a small business. You want to be aware of resources available and tips to follow to help your small business succeed — below are examples of resources available for veteran business owners:
- Boots to Business: This is an entrepreneurial education and training program that helps educate transitioning service members and veterans on business ownership;
- VAMBOA: This non-profit veteran business trade association helps veteran business owners, service-disabled veteran business owners, and military business owners with networking, collaboration, mentoring, education, certification, and advocacy for free;
- VetToCEO: This non-profit program helps veterans and transitioning military members explore entrepreneurship. Their core program takes 8 weeks, and is available for free;
- National Veteran Small Business Coalition: This organization advocates for veteran small business owners, and offers free programs and resources on their site for veteran small business owners to take advantage of;
- Patriot Boot Camp: This accelerator program focuses on helping veterans, active-duty military members, and their spouses create technology companies. It is a 3-day boot camp that offers introductory education, training, and mentorship.
Additional Resources for Veterans
Sometimes veterans need a little extra help financially, physically, or emotionally — especially during military-to-civilian transition. Below is a list of miscellaneous organizations and resources that are available for veterans.
- The Department of Defense Transition Assistance Program (DoD TAP) prepares military members and their families for military-to-civilian transitions. They provide training tools, services, and curriculum;
- Military OneSource offers active military members and veterans with personalized consultation services for navigating military-to-civilian transition;
- USA Cares offers several programs that focus on career transition, housing assistance, and emergency assistance for veterans and their families;
- The Armed Forces Foundation provides financial support, career counseling, housing assistance, and recreational therapy programs to members of the military community;
- Salute Inc provides financial, physical, and emotional needs of active military members, veterans, and their families;
- Vets 4 Warriors offers free, confidential peer support from other veterans;
- Homecoming for Veterans connects veterans with a network of clinicians that offer 20-minute sessions for free;
- Operation First Response created a Military Family Assistance Program that provides financial relief to wounded veterans and their families as they navigate the V.A. claim process (as this process can take years).