Akron, Ohio, Local 306 wireman Martin Helms is the first IBEW member to lead the Helmets to Hardhats program, which helps veterans transition out of military service and into careers in the building trades. Helms, an active duty member of the U.S. National Guard, addressed delegates and guests Wednesday.

Martin Helms, a 16-year inside journeyman wireman from Akron, Ohio, Local 306 addressed delegates and guests on Wednesday on the importance of opening the doors of the building trades to veterans. A active-duty U.S. National Guardsman himself, last October Helms earned the distinction of being the first IBEW member to become the executive director of the Helmets to Hardhats program.

"There are 18.5 million military veterans in the U.S. today,” Helms said, enough to fill Chicago’s Wrigley Field 444 times. “About 200,000 veterans enter civilian life every year.”

For a lot of these men and women, the transition from one life to another can be difficult. That’s one of the reasons why the IBEW worked with the other members of North America's Building Trades Unions in 2003 to establish the nonprofit Helmets to Hardhats program: to help make it easier to connect those leaving military service with construction-industry careers. This is especially important now, as the building trades are facing a critical labor shortage.

Helms joined the Ohio National Guard after high school, intending to use his service to help pay for a college education under the G.I. Bill. His Guard commitment led to a two-year full-time deployment at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

“When I returned home, I was working as a nonunion electrician,” Helms said. “My plan was to go to school in the evening and work full-time during the day.

“This plan was working, but unfortunately, I was burning the candle at both ends,” he said. I had a young family, I was working full-time — sometimes overtime — getting little sleep and with mouths to feed.”

Fortunately for Helms, an Army-led “Yellow Ribbon” meeting following his deployment informed him about Helmets to Hardhats and its connections to the IBEW.

“I was told that the building trades had registered apprenticeship opportunities, and it deeply piqued my interest.”

In 2006, Helms was accepted into the Akron Area Electrical Joint Apprenticeship Training Center, and by 2010 he had completed his apprenticeship as an inside wireman.

“I went on to be a successful foreman and to complete my college education, the main reason why I joined the armed services in 1999,” he said.

Then, after another deployment — this time, a year-long assignment in the Middle East — Helms started working directly for the JATC, first as an instructor, then as assistant director, and then in 2017 as director.

He’s now balancing his Helmets to Hardhats leadership role with his commitment to the Ohio National Guard, where he’s a Chief Warrant Officer, grade 2, assigned to the 112th Engineer Battalion based in suburban Cleveland.

“This is what this Helmets to Hardhats program does: It changes lives,” Helms said, by giving service men and women an opportunity to become middle-class citizens working in the building trades.

Since Helmets to Hardhats was founded, “we’ve done this over 42,000 times [since 2003],” he said. Over the past five years alone, he said, H2H has facilitated 11,000 successful transitions from military to civilian life, he said.

None of it would be possible, Helms said, without the support of armed services, Helmets to Hardhats, and H2H sponsors like the IBEW, he said.  

“My goal is that, by 2025, to break 15,000 [transitions to civilian life],” he said. “But we cannot do this without you. What I’m asking you today is this: Get involved, be an H2H ally, follow us on social media and share.”

Following Helms’s presentation, International President Lonnie R. Stephenson presented a video, produced by Boston Local 104, about the Veterans Electrical Entry Program, the IBEW-led program for military veterans that works with leaders on military bases to give service men and women in their last six months of service the chance to complete a first-year electrical apprenticeship program in an intensive, full-time course.