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Trading helmets for hard hats, veterans explore career in construction

Mary Hui | The Washington Post

For the better part of the past half century, Vietnam veteran Bob Luckett has been working in the construction industry.

Luckett, 69, started out as a laborer in a masonry company after completing his military service in 1971. It was tough work at first. His boss “was great, but he worked you to death,” he said, and soon Luckett developed an allergy to the lime in mortar.

“My hands were like hamburgers.”

So Luckett took on a supervisory role, and steadily rose through the ranks before starting his own contracting company in 1998. He took charge of projects from designing and building homes from scratch to doing remodels and additions. He sold the company in 2015, and did some consulting and project management for local construction companies. But he knew he wanted something different, something more.

Then Luckett heard a report the radio one day about the challenges veterans face finding a job after leaving the service, and the idea for a new venture was born. In November, Luckett founded Veteran’s Next Mission, a nonprofit that offers veterans a paid four-year training program to prepare them for a career in the construction industry.

One recent afternoon on a quiet tree-lined cul-de-sac in Arlington, Va., Luckett was hard at work with his first group of trainees. The crew was working on a $185,000, 12 x 16 feet addition to a home Luckett designed and built 12 years ago for a newly wed couple. Now that the family has grown to include three kids, they needed extra space. And so Luckett is back to help his old clients, and some veterans looking for an opportunity.

“Put a nail in, right there,” said Luckett, pointing at a corner where two wooden boards needed to be held together.

Gripping a gray nail gun tightly, Brian Mandes fired once.

“Well, that was refreshing,” Mandes, 44, said as the nail gun gave off a poof of cool air. Mandes spent 14 years in the infantry in the Army National Guard. He had completed a tour in Iraq, where he was armed with an M4 rifle and an M2 .50-caliber machine gun. But he had never fired a nail gun.

“I love it. Every chance I get to use it, I use it,” Mandes said.

Under Luckett’s close guidance, his trainees put up form boards along the perimeter of the concrete base of the structure. They painstakingly measured out the wood, sawed it to the precise length, and affixed it to the concrete slab. At each step, Luckett would first demonstrate what to do, then have Mandes and Derek Lett, another trainee who served as a cavalry scout in the Army from 2011 to 2013, repeat the procedure. A third trainee, Lisa Duan, 24, was off that day.

Construction is a “very natural” transition for veterans, Luckett said, because it shares so many elements of military life: working outdoors, teamwork, organization, and discipline. “It’s a good opportunity for veterans.”

And Luckett thinks that veterans bring an additional element of grit to construction work. “A lot of other construction sites, it’s raining, and the guys are gone,” he said. “[For] these guys, it’s just water.”

The veteran unemployment rate stands at 3.4 percent, lower than the national average of 4 percent for nonveterans, according to the latest May figures from the Department of Labor. But some veterans face greater challenges finding employment than others. Those ages 18 to 24 have an unemployment rate of 10.7 percent, more than two percentage points higher than nonveterans the same age, according to Department of Labor statistics.

Such statistics were just one reason Luckett was moved to act.

He works alongside his trainees from early morning till midafternoon, Monday through Friday. They learn how to pour concrete, and install framing, siding, roofing, dry wall, and insulation. They earn $12 an hour, with a $1 increase every six months. The goal is to provide them with skills so that at the end of the four years, the veterans can either pick a trade to pursue, work with a remodeling company, or start their own business.

“Every day is a learning curve,” said Lett, who hopes to graduate from the program into a well-paying job in the construction industry.

But that challenge is familiar to the vets. Both Lett and Mandes said the work brings back fond memories of the Army.

“I miss the camaraderie, so this is perfect,” said Mandes. He wants to start his own contracting business one day, and for now he is getting extra practice on his construction skills through a hobby of his: building miniature houses.

Watching Luckett at work on the construction site, it’s hard to believe that he will soon turn 70. Gripping a sledgehammer, he gives a wooden stake a good whack to drive it into the ground. His stance is solid, his swing smooth and strong.

Veteran’s Next Mission is only a few months old, but already Luckett is looking to expand. He is currently in the process of recruiting more trainees and trainers, so that the group can take on more than one project simultaneously.