By Heather Huber, Fort Campbell CourierJanuary 13, 2017
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. -- For many Fort Campbell Soldiers, leaving the Army is an opportunity to reinvent themselves with a new career path.
To help Soldiers in that transition, Hiller Plumbing, Heating, Cooling and Electrical has partnered with the Staff Sgt. Glenn H. English Jr. Army Education Center.
"One of our biggest problems is always getting good people and I can't think of a better group of people than ex-military," said Jimmy Hiller, owner of Hiller Plumbing, Heating, Cooling and Electrical.
When the Total Tech HVAC, Plumbing and Electrical training school opened in Nashville, Daphne Frontz, Hiller corporate recruiter, contacted Teresa English, Fort Campbell Career Skills Program coordinator. Together they developed the Transition to Trades program.
"[Soldiers] are dedicated. They're hard working, they're honest, they can pass a drug screening, they can pass a background check, you only have to tell them once -- they're the best of the best," Frontz said. "I think we've got 30 who Hiller has hired and I wish I could multiply that by 100."
Hiller said he wanted to work with transitioning Soldiers to help ensure they had a job or at least a skilled trade when they leave the Army.
"Our bottom line is that we care," said Don Miller, institutional director of Total Tech. "People coming out of the military are prime candidates for our trade. I care about my trade, I care about people and now I'm able to put those two together. I can help people and also our trade is in dire straits for good people."
Miller said the military helps instill work ethics and discipline as well as eliminate bad habits.
"They go right into the classroom. They're ready. They've got some life experiences to them. They're primed and ready to listen and learn. Our trade is looking for exactly what the folks in the military offer us," he said. "We just provided the means to go from point A -- the service -- to point B -- the service industry." Miller said the Soldiers who have gone through the program so far are an instructor's dream because they have a hunger for learning.
"They've got guys there not because mom and daddy put them there, but because they're looking to make that change in life and they're very intently listening to every word coming out of your mouth," he said.
The program is 30 days for each trade -- plumbing, electrical and HVAC -- and students are allowed to sign up for all three.
"The trades have always been really, really good to me and it doesn't make any difference where you go in the country -- they're always going to need plumbing, they're always going to need electrical, they're always going to need the heating and air conditioning to work," Hiller said. "It doesn't make any difference where they go. That need is always there."
Students are transported to and from Hiller's training center in Nashville every day to fulfill the 100 course hours required in each field. Frontz estimated that the courses are about 80 percent lab work and 20 percent class work.
"Basically they're learning how to plumb a house, put in the piping, put in the dishwashers, the toilets, the bathtubs," Frontz said. "For electrical, they're running the wires for basically what would be a brand new house. So they definitely come out of these programs with the knowledge they need to either work on their own homes or to go into the career field."
The program accepts Soldiers within their last six months from transitioning out of the Army.
Unlike other corporate training courses, Hiller does not require Soldiers trained in his program to come work for his company after they complete their training.
"It's really about the Soldier. Now I want them to come and work for me because we have a tremendous need, but one of the things we're also affiliated with a lot of contractors across the country," Hiller said. "So my goal is to help all of them get a job. If they want to go back to California, I want to make those connections for them. So when they do transition back to wherever home is that they have a job waiting for them."
Brian Myers said the Hiller program saved him after he found out he was being discharged early.
"I found out earlier [in 2016] I was getting med-boarded out of the Army. I still had a couple of years on my contract and I just bought a home -- actually I bought my home and found out about three months later I was getting medically discharged," he said. "The bills don't stop because the Army checks do."
Myers said his only experience prior to the military was in restaurants and since he was in infantry, he felt like he needed to learn a new trade in order to succeed back in the civilian world. While going through ACAP he knew he would need to learn a trade or a skill if he wanted to support his Family. He tried the Veterans in Piping program, but said it was not a good fit. Then he met Frontz and she told him about Hiller and their training program.
"I didn't know anything about HVAC and that's what I ended up doing -- I took the electrical course and the HVAC course," Myers said. "I've talked to so many people and there's always a need for it. I can learn something new and [it can] potentially be a career path if I can make some good money doing it."
Myers said his dad told him HVAC was a difficult trade, but Myers wanted to challenge himself with something that would remain useful in the long run.
"You're always going to need heating, you're always going to need air-conditioning," he said.
Myers got to speak to other veterans employed by Hiller while he went through the course that convinced him the company would be a good fit for him as well. All of the graduates are guaranteed an interview at one of Hiller's branches.
"Now I got in the door, I'm really loving the company. They take care of their employees. I'm glad to be here," he said. "It's been more challenging than I expected. Every day I do something new, or I'm learning something new."
When Matt Cabral left the Army, he knew he had to learn a trade because his experience with field artillery wouldn't transfer to civilian employment.
"The [Hiller] program was life changing. It gave me an opportunity to go to school and have an opportunity to have an interview with the company," he said. "Most times when you exit the military, it's not always in the same field that you've done in the Army that you're trying to do now. For them to send me to school, train me, and make me proficient in a new career field and then set up an opportunity for me to have an interview and then possibly get hired on was a huge stress relief."
Cabral said he has a fiancee and two daughters so the program gives him the opportunity to provide for his Family. He also said it was important for him not to have a gap between his last paycheck from the Army and his first paycheck from a civilian job, so he started the Hiller program 60 days before his separation date.
"Starting sooner rather than later really took that stress off my shoulders," he said. "I didn't have to worry about how I'd make my payments. I finished out my commitment with the Army. I served my country honorably. I got out and I was already set in a field and I was still actually getting paid for the remaining days I had in the Army."
He said the thing that first interested him most in the program was the hands on training versus classroom PowerPoints. He also thought it'd offer him a challenge and force him to adapt the knowledge he already had about heating and air conditioning to the HVAC systems Hiller works with.
"It's everything that I expected and more," he said. "It's a great opportunity for Soldiers to transition seamlessly from one career to another."
Patrick O'Brien, Clarksville operations manager, and Mark Cheben, Clarksville branch manager, said they prefer hiring from the transition program because Soldiers already have discipline and moral fiber instilled in them from their time in the Army.
"Doing the right thing for our clients and our customers is very important to us and having individuals who have that instilled in them already -- of doing the right thing -- it's an important characteristic," O'Brien said.
Cheben said Soldiers are also better at adapting to the way Hiller wants their employees to interact with customers.
"In the service industry -- specifically plumbing, heating and air conditioning and electricity -- most experienced technician are very good technically. They are not very good communicatively. They're pretty much taught throughout their career to go knock on the door, find the problem, fix it and leave the house," Cheben said. "When we get these young men from the military with very little civilian experience, they soak up our training on how to properly communicate with a home owner. How to treat a homeowner with respect and how to educate a homeowner about their system."
O'Brien said he believed that learning plumbing, electrical and HVAC was good for Soldiers because they are mobile and they are proven to be viable in the long term.
"Unlike other industries where it could be a possible trend or anything else, these are essentials that people want to have in their home or business on a daily basis so the market is continually growing," he said.
Cheben added that the trades are not popular among the younger generations, so the demand for skilled workers is high, but the supply is small.
"The biggest thing is we're looking for guys who want to be team players, who want to take care of our customers, and we provide them opportunities to excel," O'Brien said.
Cheben said that 70 percent of his current workforce are veterans, so they understand better than most employers the challenges of transitioning to the civilian world and the employees support each other.
"One of the things that Soldiers have while they're in the military is a camaraderie with their fellow Soldiers," he said. "We're able to transfer that camaraderie into our branch where guys actually look after guys and take care of each other as opposed to a lot of companies where the individuals come to work. The individuals do their jobs. Then they go home as an individual."